Cairo: World efforts to end two weeks of deadly violence in and around Gaza stepped up a gear on Monday as the UN chief and top US diplomat arrived in Cairo to press for an immediate truce.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon demanded the violence "must stop now" as the death toll in the 14-day conflict hit 572 Palestinians and 27 Israelis, with US Secretary of State John Kerry arriving to lend his weight to truce efforts.
Egypt, which had brokered past conflicts between Israel and Gaza`s Hamas rulers, had put forward a ceasefire accepted by Israel and spurned by the Palestinian militants, who demand an end to the blockade of the enclave.
In a press conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Ban said urged "all parties to stop violence unconditionally and return to dialogue".
The "violence must stop, it must stop now," Ban said at a news conference.
Ban urged Israel to "exercise maximum restraint" saying: "Too many innocent people are dying."
Shoukry said his government was still unwilling to concede to Hamas`s demands to alter the proposal. Egypt has condemned Israel`s bombardment of the coastal strip, but also blamed Hamas for rejecting the truce last week.Kerry arrived late Monday and headed straight to consult Ban. US officials said that Kerry would meet the Egyptian leadership including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Tuesday and had no set date to leave the region as he works to broker a ceasefire.
But US officials acknowledged that diplomacy could prove more difficult than in past Gaza bloodletting in part because Egypt, long the key regional broker, had little leverage with Hamas after the army overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year.
"The objective here is to get the fastest possible ceasefire. That doesn`t mean that it`s going to be fast, and it certainly doesn`t mean it`s going to be easy, but that`s the goal," a senior US official travelling with Kerry said on condition of anonymity.
Another official said that at the very least Kerry wanted to reduce the violence which has claimed a mounting toll.
"Our goal is a ceasefire and we believe that given enough time that that ought to be achievable. But if it wasn`t, then obviously anything that de-escalates the situation on the ground is a movement in a positive direction," the official said.
Hamas wants Israel to agree to an end to its blockade of Gaza and the release of scores of prisoners before it will agree to halt its attacks, the latest of which saw 10 militants infiltrate southern Israel early on Monday.
It has received support from two key regional powers, Qatar and Turkey, both Western allies that also have close relations with the Islamists.
US officials said that Kerry was maintaining contacts with Qatar and Turkey and was open to travel in the region.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas held talks in Qatar on the truce negotiations on Monday, a day later than planned.Kerry has publicly defended Israel but appeared to criticise the US ally in candid remarks caught on an open microphone between television interviews on Sunday.
Kerry was heard talking about Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza to a State Department official identified as Jonathan Finer just before appearing on the "Fox News Sunday" political talk show.
"I hope they don`t think that`s an invitation to go do more," Kerry says. "That better be the warning to them."
A frustrated Kerry then says: "It`s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it`s a hell of a pinpoint operation," in apparent frustration over the civilian toll in the Israeli operation.
"We`ve got to get over there," Kerry is heard saying on the Sunday recording. "I think it`s crazy to be sitting around. Let`s go."
The UN Security Council held urgent talks on the conflict late Sunday, expressing "serious concern" about the rising death toll and demanding "an immediate cessation of hostilities."