(MENAFN - Arab News) Israel yesterday threatened to expand its assault on Gaza as it pressed ahead with a fifth day of strikes, killing 21 Palestinians, mostly women and children.
Of the overall toll, eight were children and five were women.
As France's top diplomat Laurent Fabius arrived in the region to bolster Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire, Palestinian officials said it was possible a deal would be reached "today or tomorrow."
But there was no letup in the bloodshed, with yesterday's victims including three toddlers and a 13-year-old girl in a relentless campaign of airstrikes, which has stoked Arab and Islamic anger.
The latest deaths hiked the Palestinian death toll, even as the Israeli army said there had been no militant rocket fire during the night. The 10-hour lull ended at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) after which 33 rockets hit Israel and another five were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, the army said.
Two were fired at Tel Aviv, triggering air raid sirens in the commercial metropolis for the fourth day. Iron Dome intercepted both, police said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was ready to "significantly expand" its operation against militants in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip even as he prepared to receive Fabius, who is on a whirlwind truce mission to the region.
His remarks came as thousands of Israeli troops backed by armor massed along the border, fueling fears of a ground assault.
Three of yesterday's youngest victims were named as three-year-old Tamer Abu Saeyfan and his one-year-old sister Jumana, and 18-month-old Iyyad Abu Khusa.
A missile strike on the beachfront Shati refugee camp in Gaza City killed Tasneem Al-Nahal, 13, and another adult member of her family, the Hamas-run health ministry and witnesses said.
Her body lay in a mortuary in a pink and blue tracksuit, an AFP correspondent reported.
Doctors said she had been killed by shrapnel wounds to the head.
Witnesses at Shati confirmed seeing the two killed in a hit on a small house in the camp, which gutted several nearby cars, the correspondent reported.
Shattered glass littered the floor by a large pool of blood, as women screamed and wept hysterically. A nearby minibus was peppered with holes, its windows all blown out by the blast. Aircraft also hit two media centers in Gaza City, wounding at least eight journalists, one of whom lost a leg, Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qudra said. The bombardment came despite mounting Arab talk of a possible truce as talks intensified in Cairo. "There are serious talks to reach a truce, and it is possible that understandings will be reached today or tomorrow," a senior Palestinian official told AFP.
Egyptian mediators were engaged in "intensive communication with all parties to reach a truce as quickly as possible," an Egyptian security source said.
"We have reached important understandings but we still have a little way to go in order to complete the truce agreement in order to achieve security and stability and... ensure it doesn't happen again."
In Tel Aviv, sirens sounded for the fourth straight day, sending pedestrians and drivers running for cover, in an attack claimed by Hamas.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned yesterday that a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip would lose Israel much international sympathy and support.
Hague told Sky News television it was much more difficult to limit civilian casualties in a ground assault and it would threaten to prolong the conflict.
Britain has said that Hamas bears the principal responsibility for the crisis over its rocket attacks on Israeli territory. But Hague said it would be hard for the international community to maintain sympathy with Israel if it launched a ground operation.
"It's much more difficult to restrict and avoid civilian casualties during a ground invasion and a large ground operation would threaten to prolong the conflict.
"We have made our views very clear on that with Israel, just as we have made very clear our view that the barrage of rockets from Gaza on to southern Israel is an intolerable situation for the Israelis and it's not surprising they have responded to that.
"A ground invasion is much more difficult for the international community to sympathize with or support - including the UK."
An Arab League delegation headed by the bloc's chief Nabil Elaraby will visit Gaza tomorrow in a show of support for the territory in the face of Israeli air strikes, a league official said. "The Arab ministerial delegation formed by the Arab foreign ministerial council will visit Gaza on Tuesday, headed by Nabil Elaraby," the official said in a statement yesterday.
Iran expects regional countries to send weapons to the Palestinians to help them fight Israel, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani said yesterday.
"Although political measures taken by the regional countries are admirable, they are definitely not sufficient," Larijani said in remarks reported by IRNA news agency.
"It is expected of them that they send serious military aid to the Palestinians... why should Islamic countries not send weapons to Palestine?" he asked, saying Israel receives such aid from the US and Western countries.
US President Barack Obama said yesterday Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip could only deepen its death toll, cautioning against an escalation even as he defended the Jewish state's right to defend itself.