World efforts to broker a ceasefire in war-torn Gaza have gathered pace as Israel presses a blistering 14-day assault on the enclave, pushing the Palestinian death toll to 548.
As Washington and the United Nations demanded an “immediate ceasefire” in the battered Palestinian enclave, there was no let up in the Israeli offensive with another 31 Gazans killed in a series of strikes.
And Israel said troops killed 10 Hamas militants after they sneaked over the border through a network of tunnels that the army has been trying to destroy in an intensive four-day ground operation.
With growing concern over the number of civilian deaths, UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo for top-level talks on ending the hostilities, with US Secretary of State John Kerry also expected to fly in later on Monday.
Following the deadliest day in Gaza since 2009, when at least 140 Palestinians were killed on Sunday, medics pulled another 68 bodies from the rubble early on Monday, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.
And 31 others were killed in a series of fresh strikes across the Gaza Strip.
In the latest bloodshed, tank-shelling on a hospital in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza killed four people, and a family of nine was killed in the southern city of Rafah, seven of them children, Qudra said.
As the diplomatic efforts gathered steam, hundreds of people could be seen flooding out of the northern town of Beit Hanun, a day after many thousands fled an intensive Israeli bombardment of the eastern Gaza City district of Shejaiya.
On Sunday, at least 72 people were killed in Shejaiya during a punishing Israeli operation which reduced much of the district to rubble and left charred bodies lying in the streets.
And an Israeli tank shell killed three more in the district on Monday.
On Sunday, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed inside Gaza, raising to 18 the total number of soldiers killed since a ground operation began late on Thursday.
That represented the army’s heaviest loss in eight years and left the Jewish state in mourning.
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas held talks in Doha, pledging in their first meeting since the launch of Israel’s assault to work together for a ceasefire and to lift the blockade, officials said.
Hamas has so far rejected truce calls, insisting Israel meet a series of conditions before halting its fire – including an end to the eight-year blockade on Gaza and the release of scores of prisoners from Israeli jails.
Despite rising concern over the number of civilian casualties, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas for using innocent civilians “as human shields” and insisted the military operation had “very strong support” from the international community.