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Palestinians, standing behind the gate of Rafah crossing, hold their passports as they try to cross into Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on July 10, 2014. (IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS)
Palestinians, standing behind the gate of Rafah crossing, hold their passports as they try to cross into Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on July 10, 2014. (IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS)

Obama tells Israel U.S. ready to help end hostilities Add to ...

President Barack Obama expressed concern to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday about the risk of an escalation of hostilities in the region and said the United States was ready to help bring them to an end, the White House said.

“The United States remains prepared to facilitate a cessation of hostilities, including a return to the November 2012 ceasefire agreement,” the White House said Obama told Netanyahu in a phone call.

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Obama reiterated U.S. condemnation of rocket fire into Israel by Hamas and reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself against the attacks, the White House said.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to his Egyptian counterpart in an attempt to get Egypt to use its influence to calm the situation, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

“Part of the secretary’s effort has been reaching out to countries in the region, including Qatar, including Egypt,” Psaki said at a briefing earlier in the day.

“Any country in the region that can play a role in bringing an end to the rocket fire from Hamas, we’re certainly going to be engaged with.”

The U.S. government refuses to negotiate directly with Hamas, which Washington considers a terrorist organization.

Egypt played a crucial role in mediating an Israel-Hamas ceasefire in 2012.

A senior U.S. official said Kerry’s phone call with Egypt’s foreign minister was a discussion about how to reduce tensions between Israel and Hamas and “how to influence Hamas if that’s possible.”

The Israelis “know we have been in touch with Egypt and Qatar” to seek help in calming the situation in Gaza, the official said.

ISRAEL'S GAZA OFFENSIVE

As Israel intensified its bombardment Thursday of the Gaza Strip in an offensive against the Hamas militant group, with more than 900 targets attacked so far, it said it was doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties in the crowded urban landscape. The risk of more civilian deaths will remain high, especially if Israel moves in with ground forces.

More than 85 people have been killed, including dozens of civilians, and over 300 wounded since the offensive began Tuesday, Palestinian medical officials said.

Gaza militants fired more than 140 rockets at major Israeli residential areas Thursday, Israel’s military said. Rockets fired at southern Israel damaged homes, infrastructure and spread panic. Israelis rushed to bomb shelters as sirens wailed in major cities. About 5 million Israelis are in range of the Palestinian rocket attacks.

Neither side is showing any sign of halting their heaviest fighting since an eight-day battle in late 2012 despite pleas to do so from world leaders.

Israel says that Hamas must cease rocket fire from Gaza for Israel to consider a truce. Militants have fired hundreds of rockets, striking across the length of Israel and disrupting life across the country.

No Israelis have been seriously harmed as the “Iron Dome” defence system has intercepted at least 70 of the projectiles destined for major cities. The system is designed to intercept rockets headed toward populated areas, while allowing others to fall in open areas.

IRON DOME: ISRAEL’S DEFENCE SHIELD IS HOLDING

Israel’s Iron Dome interceptor has shot down some 90 per cent of Palestinian rockets it engaged during this week’s surge of Gaza fighting, up from the 85 per cent rate in the previous mini-war of 2012, Israeli and U.S. officials said Thursday.

Israel said that of more than 320 rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, at least 72 were intercepted while most of the rest fell harmlessly in open areas.

(Map: How far into Israel can Gaza's rockets reach?)

Hamas, the dominant Islamist group in Gaza, said it fired eight rockets at Israel early on Thursday, two of them at Tel Aviv, where witnesses saw them being shot down by the Iron Dome.

Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said Iron Dome also intercepted rockets launched at the cities of Beersheba and Ashkelon overnight.

Seven batteries of Iron Dome, made by the state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd and partly funded by Washington, have been rotated around Israel to tackle Hamas’s unprecedented long-range salvoes. The rocket attacks from Gaza have caused no serious casualties, but the barrages but have paralyzed business in southern communities and sent hundreds of thousands of people scrambling for shelter in Tel Aviv, the commercial capital, in cities close to northern Haifa port and in the holy city of Jerusalem.

(Where are Hamas's long-range missiles coming from? Read Paul Koring's report)

CANADA: HARPER RENEWS SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reaffirmed Ottawa's support for Israel in a conversation with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Wednesday.

The Prime Minister’s Office says Netanyahu updated Harper on the situation in Israel, including steps taken to defend itself against Hamas's attacks. The PMO says Harper reiterated Canada’s steadfast support for Israel and its right to defend itself against terrorist attacks. Both leaders agreed that Hamas must end its targeted attacks on Israeli citizens.

UNITED NATIONS: SECRETARY-GENERAL WARNS OF 'ESCALATION'

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Thursday that it is more urgent than ever to avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war that could spill into the Mideast and called on both sides to agree to a ceasefire.

The UN chief said the threat of an Israeli ground offensive and “an all-out escalation” is preventable only if Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, stops firing rockets and mortars into Israel. He also urged the international community to accelerate efforts to immediately end the violence. “Now is not a time for further incitement or vengeance,” Ban said. “We must not let spoilers prevail. We must keep the situation from getting any further out of control.”

Palestinian UN ambassador Riyad Mansour told the council that the international community was obliged to ensure protection of Palestinian civilians under the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war and occupations.

“Israel has clearly violated and abdicated its responsibility as an occupying power to ensure the safety and well-being of the civilian population under its occupation,” he said, adding that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has asked Switzerland – as the depository for Geneva Conventions – to convene a meeting of the parties to the 4th Geneva Convention on the protection of civilian persons in time of war.

In a moment of drama, Israel’s ambassador suddenly played the piercing 15-second siren that warns Israelis to run to bomb shelters to escape rocket attacks to highlight the threat his country faces. Ron Prosor told the council that Hamas is “intentionally and indiscriminately” threatening 3.5 million Israelis and “no nation, no people and no government could tolerate this.”

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