An Israeli soldier carries a 120 mm mortar shell outside the central Gaza Strip July 31, 2014. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing international alarm over a rising civilian death toll in Gaza, said Thursday he would not accept any ceasefire that stopped Israel completing the destruction of militant infiltration tunnels. Baz Ratner/Reuters
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel will destroy the Hamas tunnel network in the Gaza Strip "with or without a ceasefire," as the military called up another 16,000 reservists to pursue its campaign in the densely populated territory.
Netanyahu's vow came as international efforts to end the 23-day-old conflict seemed to sputter despite concern over the mounting death toll, with more than 1,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and more than 50 Israelis, almost all of them soldiers, killed since July 8.
"We have neutralized dozens of terror tunnels and we are committed to complete this mission, with or without a cease-fire," Netanyahu said. "Therefore I will not agree to any offer that does not allow the military to complete this important mission for the security of the people of Israel."
An initial Israeli aerial campaign against Hamas was widened into a ground offensive on July 17. Since then, the campaign has concentrated on destroying more than 30 cross-border tunnels that militants have constructed to carry out attacks on Israeli territory.
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Israel says most of the 32 tunnels it has uncovered have now been demolished and that getting rid of the remainder will take no more than a few days.
The new call-up orders to boost the number of reserves taking part in the offensive follow another day of intensive fighting, in which 116 Palestinians and three Israeli soldiers were killed.
It also coincides with stalled diplomatic efforts to end the war, which has already claimed more than 1,360 Palestinian lives — most of them civilians — and reduced entire Gaza neighbourhoods to rubble.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Israeli defence official said the purpose of the latest call-up was to provide relief for troops currently on the Gaza firing line. However, Israeli officials have also said they do not rule out broadening operations in the coming days.
Fifty-six Israeli soldiers and three civilians on the Israeli side have died in the campaign, as Palestinians have fired hundreds of rockets at Israel — some reaching major cities — and carried out attacks inside Israel through tunnels beneath the heavily guarded frontier.
Israel has now called up a total of 86,000 reserves during the Gaza conflict, which it launched on July 8 to try to end rocket fire from Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza.
Both sides accused of war crimes
The UN's top human rights official, meanwhile, is accusing Israel and Hamas militants of committing war crimes in the latest Gaza war.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Thursday said that by placing and firing rockets within heavily populated areas both sides are committing "a violation of international humanitarian law, therefore a war crime."
Pillay also told reporters in Geneva that she sees "a recurrence of the very acts" from the 2009 Gaza war in which the UN concluded Israel deliberately targeted civilians and might have committed war crimes, along with Hamas.
Wednesday marked a second day of particularly heavy Israeli air and artillery attacks, at a time when Egyptian ceasefire efforts appeared to have stalled. Israeli media said late Wednesday that Israel's security cabinet decided to press forward with the operation.
Egyptian officials, meanwhile, met with an Israeli envoy about Israel's conditions for a ceasefire, including disarming Hamas, according to a high-ranking Egyptian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to discuss the delicate diplomatic efforts.
Hamas has said it will only halt fire once it receives guarantees that a seven-year-old Gaza border blockade by Israel and Egypt will be lifted.
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