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Gaza and Israel have both suffered their deadliest day since the beginning of the current offensive.

Israel says that 13 of its soldiers died since Saturday night, the biggest one-day loss for its army in years.

At least 87 Gazans were reported killed on Sunday – 60 of them in the district of Shejaiya alone. The total death toll in Gaza now stands at more than 425.

Hamas said on Sunday evening that it had captured an Israeli soldier, but this has not been confirmed by Israel.

Celebratory gunfire and shouts could be heard in Gaza City after the claim was made.

Sunday’s death toll for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is higher than that sustained by the IDF during the entire three-week duration of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the last time that Israel sent ground troops into Gaza.

It brings the number of Israeli soldiers killed in the current offensive to 18.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue operations in Gaza “as much as we need to” despite the casualties.

He said the Israeli government felt “deep pain” over deaths of its soldiers, and that Hamas, not Israel was responsible for the escalation in Gaza.

The UN says 83695 people have now been displaced in Gaza and have taken refuge in 61 shelters 640x436 photo

The UN says 83,695 people have now been displaced in Gaza and have taken refuge in 61 shelters

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the deaths in the Shejaiya district east of Gaza City were a “massacre”.

The UN says 83,695 people have now been displaced in Gaza and have taken refuge in 61 shelters and that the figure is “rising all the time”.

Witnesses spoke of bodies lying in the street.

A humanitarian truce was agreed in the area, but lasted less than an hour with both sides blaming each other for violating the truce.

Paramedics said that rescue workers had not been able to get to the eastern part of Shejaiya, an area very close to the Israeli border and about 1.2 miles away from Gaza City, which has seen heavy shelling.

Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli troops had no choice but to enter densely populated areas and that they had asked civilians to leave.

The death toll in Gaza rose sharply over the weekend, with the number of Palestinians killed now standing at more than 425 since the operation began, according to Palestinian health officials.

They say the number of wounded from the operation now stands at more than 3,000.

The majority of those killed are civilians, the UN says.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sent ground troops into Gaza on Thursday after days of heavy air and naval barrages failed to stop rocket fire from Gaza.

Two Israeli civilians have died since the offensive began on 8 July.

Israel says the operation is necessary to target Hamas tunnel networks, which it says it could not do from the air alone.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman, said the offensive was being expanded “to restore security and stability to Israel’s residents and citizens”.

Meanwhile, the UN warned it was running out of supplies to help more than 50,000 Palestinians who have sought shelter at its schools in Gaza.

Qatar is expected to host a meeting between President Mahmoud Abbas and Ban Ki-moon on Sunday before the UN chief continues on to Kuwait, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan.

Mahmoud Abbas is also due to meet Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

Hamas rejected an Egypt-brokered ceasefire last week, saying any deal with Israel must include an end to a blockade of Gaza.

Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas have announced a reconciliation deal.

The rival factions said they will seek to form a unity government in the coming weeks.

The move comes as the peace talks between President Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel near collapse.

Hamas and Fatah split violently in 2007. Previous reconciliation agreements have never been implemented.

Israel’s prime minister said Mahmoud Abbas would have to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas.

“You can have one but not the other. I hope he chooses peace; so far he hasn’t done so,” warned Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestinian officials responded by saying reconciliation is an internal matter and uniting Palestinian people would reinforce peace.

Fatah and Hamas have announced reconciliation deal photo

Fatah and Hamas have announced reconciliation deal (photo Reuters)

Mahmoud Abbas sent a delegation from his Fatah party to Gaza for reconciliation talks earlier this week.

Wednesday’s announcement was made at a news conference by representatives of Fatah and Hamas, an Islamist group designated a terrorist organization by Israel, the US and the EU.

The factions said they planned to form an interim unity government – headed by Mahmoud Abbas – within five weeks and hold parliamentary elections within six months.

“This is the good news we tell our people,” Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of the Hamas-led government in Gaza, told reporters.

“The era of division is over.”

The news brought thousands of Palestinians out on to the streets of Gaza City in celebration.

Ordinary Palestinians have long hoped for an end to the split between their political leaders but previous reconciliation deals in Doha and Cairo were never implemented.

The agreement will strengthen the position of Mahmoud Abbas – whose Fatah movement dominates the Palestinian Authority, which controls parts of the West Bank – and should also make Hamas feel less isolated as it continues to face border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt.

The two factions have been at odds since Hamas, which won parliamentary elections in 2006, ousted forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah in Gaza during clashes in 2007 and set up a rival government.

Shortly after Wednesday’s reconciliation deal was announced, five people were injured in an Israeli air strike in northern Gaza, Palestinian medics said.

Israel has freed a group of 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a US-brokered agreement to resume direct peace talks.

The prisoners were greeted by cheering crowds on their return to the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel approved the releases on Saturday, but they were delayed to allow victims’ families to appeal.

The prisoners committed murder or attempted murder before the 1993 Oslo accords and have served 19 to 28 years.

They make up the third tranche of a total of 104 prisoners to be freed.

Eight of the men were driven late at night to checkpoints leading into Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The other 18 prisoners were heading to Ramallah in the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted the prisoners at his headquarters in Ramallah and pledged to continue pressing for the release of other long-serving and sick prisoners.

“We will not sign a final peace deal with Israel before all the prisoners are released,” he said.

President Mahmoud Abbas has previously hailed the prisoners as heroes of the Palestinian cause.

Israel has freed a group of 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a US brokered agreement to resume direct peace talks photo

Israel has freed a group of 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a US-brokered agreement to resume direct peace talks

Palestinians celebrate the releases as victories over Israel – something deeply resented by families of Israeli victims of political violence.

Relatives of the victims of the latest prisoners being freed – 18 from the West Bank, three from Gaza and five from East Jerusalem – have staged days of protests against the releases and appealed to the Supreme Court to block them.

In the past, the court has allowed such releases to take place.

“One of the things we knew when we captured these detainees is that they needed to stay in prison for the maximum period,” Meir Indor of Israeli victims’ association, Almagor, told the Jerusalem Post.

“These men are time-bombs. Wherever they go they kill, because that’s the purpose of their lives.”

The Israeli government has stressed that if any of the prisoners “resume hostile activity” they will have to serve the remainder of their sentences.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu also defended the decision to free those behind deadly attacks at a meeting of his Likud party on Monday.

“Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be,” he said.

“We were not elected to make easy decisions.”

The Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, Issa Qaraqai, dismissed the Israeli complaints, saying: “Israel is a murderous state and these prisoners are freedom fighters.”

After the two previous releases, the Israeli government has sugared what the right-wing parties within its coalition regard as a bitter pill by making announcements about Jewish settlement plans in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli media reports suggest Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to unveil plans to build an additional 1,400 housing units, including 600 at Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem.

About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

Palestinians say continued settlement construction undermines the direct peace talks, which have shown little sign of progress since resuming in July after a three-year hiatus.

The second of four batches of 26 Palestinian prisoners have been released in Israel as part of a deal for the resumption of peace talks.

Five prisoners were released in Gaza, while the other 21 were sent to the West Bank.

Those freed were all convicted of murders and had spent between 19 and 28 years in prison.

Israeli and Palestinian officials resumed direct talks in Jerusalem in August after a three-year hiatus.

Those who have been freed are seen there as political prisoners and heroes of the Palestinian cause – but that the decision has been hugely unpopular with the Israeli public.

The Palestinians released early on Wednesday were driven from Israel’s Ofer prison to the Erez crossing into Gaza and the Beituna crossing into the West Bank.

In Gaza, fireworks shot into the sky as the former inmates were driven away in a convoy. In the West Bank, the freed prisoners were taken to Ramallah, where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addressed a large crowd.

The second of four batches of 26 Palestinian prisoners have been released in Israel as part of a deal for the resumption of peace talks photo

The second of four batches of 26 Palestinian prisoners have been released in Israel as part of a deal for the resumption of peace talks

Mahmoud Abbas said the next batch of prisoners would be released in two months, and called for all Palestinians to be freed.

“There will be no final agreement without the release of all the prisoners,” he said.

He also denied rumours that the deal for the prisoner release had been made on the understanding that Israel could continue building settlements.

The release has caused tensions within Israel’s governing coalition, with far-right parties trying and failing to stop it going ahead.

Shortly after the prisoners were freed, Israeli media reported that the government had announced that it would build 1,500 new homes in the east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo.

The move was seen as an effort to mollify government hardliners. Talks between Israel and the Palestinians were suspended in 2010 after an Israeli freeze on settlement construction expired.

The longest serving prisoner, Isa Abed Rabbo, was convicted of murdering two students while they were hiking south of Jerusalem in October 1984.

A list of the prisoners was published 48 hours before the releases, to allow victims’ families to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court against the freeing – but the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by an organisation for bereaved families.

There have been large protests in Israel in recent days. Demonstrators on Wednesday held signs that read “death to murderers”.

Conditions over freedom of movement are often attached to prisoner releases by Israel but these have sometimes been broken in the past, with freed Palestinians being rearrested, our correspondent says.

The first batch of Palestinian prisoners was freed in Gaza and the West Bank on August 14.

Newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has offered his resignation to President Mahmoud Abbas, government sources say.

It was not immediately clear whether Mahmoud Abbas had accepted the resignation. Sources say Rami Hamdallah quit in a disagreement over his authority.

An academic and political independent, Rami Hamdallah was sworn in on June 6.

Rami Hamdallah replaced Salam Fayyad who stepped down in April after a long-running dispute with President Mahmoud Abbas.

The new prime minister was given two deputies – one for political affairs and one for economic affairs – but resigned because of a “conflict over authority”, reports say.

If Rami Hamdallah’s resignation is accepted, it could leave a damaging gap as the Palestinian leadership grapples with a financial crisis and the US leads efforts to revive peace talks with Israel.

Rami Hamdallah’s cabinet had only met for the first time last week. It consisted mainly of members of the Fatah party, one of the two main Palestinian political factions, led by Mahmoud Abbas.

At the time, commentators observed that the new PM would have little room to manoeuvre in a government dominated by Fatah members.

Newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has offered his resignation to President Mahmoud Abbas 640x360 photo

Newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has offered his resignation to President Mahmoud Abbas

The other main faction, Hamas, described the appointment of Rami Hamdallah as “illegal” because it was not a unity government formed as a result of a reconciliation agreement.

When he was appointed, Rami Hamdallah stated his administration would rule only for “a transitional period” until a unity government was formed.

His appointment filled a political vacuum in the Palestinian Authority, but now it appears it has opened up again – and that will be deeply troubling for President Mahmoud Abbas.

Before his appointment as prime minister, Rami Hamdallah had been known for his 15-year tenure as head of the al-Najah National University, and did not have a high profile as a politician.

There has been a deep rift between the two main Palestinian factions since 2007, when Hamas set up a rival government in Gaza after ousting Fatah in clashes.

The two factions are currently engaged in drawn-out reconciliation talks. Last month, officials on both sides announced plans to form a technocratic government by August that would then prepare for new elections.

Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad has resigned, after a long-running dispute with President Mahmoud Abbas.

Official Palestinian news agency Wafa said Mahmoud Abbas accepted Salam Fayyad’s resignation after they met in person.

The president asked him to remain as caretaker until a new government is formed.

Salam Fayyad’s resignation is a major blow for US efforts to restart the long-stalled peace process with Israel.

His resignation is the climax of long-running and increasingly bitter dispute between the prime minister and the president.

They have been at odds over economic policy since Finance Minister Nabil Kassis quit last month, and rumors were rife that Salam Fayyad would step down.

Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad has resigned after a long running dispute with President Mahmoud Abbas photo

Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad has resigned, after a long-running dispute with President Mahmoud Abbas

Salam Fayyad accepted Nabil Kassis’s resignation, but he was subsequently overruled by Mahmoud Abbas, challenging his authority.

Mahmoud Abbas reportedly waited several days before accepting Salam Fayyad’s resignation.

It comes despite recent attempts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to reconcile the two men.

Salam Fayyad, 61, was seen as a key person in US attempts to restart peace negotiations with Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas may now struggle to replace him with someone who can match his level of international credibility.

He is expected to name a new prime minister within days.

Salam Fayyad has been prime minister of the Palestinian Authority since 2007.

A former IMF official, he is widely respected among international organizations and donors.

He is considered a liberal and politically independent, being a member of neither Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, nor of rivals Hamas, who control the Gaza Strip.

In recent months Salam Fayyad has proved unpopular with both parties, partly due to his economic policies at a time when the Palestinian Authority is in financial crisis.

Hamas welcomed Salam Fayyad’s decision to stand down. Spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said he and his government “worked to protect the Zionist occupation and US interests”.

President Barack Obama is ending his Middle East tour with a trip to the famous ruins of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.

The diplomatic part of his visit ended on Friday when he met King Abdullah and pledged an additional $200 million to help Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Correspondents say Barack Obama’s four-day visit has yielded mixed results.

The US president brokered an Israeli rapprochement with Turkey but there was little progress on the Palestinian issue.

Barack Obama’s Marine One helicopter touched down near Petra after an hour-long flight from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

The site of the ancient city, which is carved into rose-red stone, dates back 2,000 years and is Jordan’s top tourist attraction, drawing more than half a million visitors each year.

President Barack Obama is ending his Middle East tour with a trip to the famous ruins of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan photo

President Barack Obama is ending his Middle East tour with a trip to the famous ruins of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan

Most of Barack Obama’s time in the Middle East was spent in Israel where he held several meetings with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

A highlight of the visit came when Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkey for “any errors that could have led to loss of life” during the 2010 commando raid on an aid flotilla that tried to breach the Gaza blockade.

Benjamin Netanyahu also agreed to compensate the families of the nine Turkish activists who were killed.

Turkey’s PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said he had accepted the apology, “in the name of the Turkish people”.

Barack Obama also briefly visited Ramallah in the West Bank to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

The US president urged Palestinians to drop their demands for a freeze in Israeli settlement-building as a precondition for peace talks.

However, a spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian leader had told Barack Obama the precondition remained in place.

Speaking to an audience of young Israelis in Jerusalem, Barack Obama praised Jewish nationhood before turning the argument around by stressing the need for Palestinians to share these same values of self-determination and justice.

“It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day,” Barack Obama said.

President Barack Obama is due to return to Washington later on Saturday.

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President Barack Obama is concluding his trip to Israel and the West Bank by paying his respects to victims of the Holocaust and visiting Bethlehem.

Barack Obama went to the Yad Vashem museum after seeing the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and former Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin.

He is touring Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity before flying to Amman for talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama urged Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks.

Barack Obama told an audience of some 2,000 young Israelis in Jerusalem that they could be “the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream” or “face growing challenges to its future”.

“The only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine,” the president warned.

Hours earlier, after holding talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Barack Obama urged Palestinians to return to the negotiating table even if Israel did not meet their condition of halting Jewish settlement construction.

“If we’re going to succeed, part of what we’re going to have to do is to get out of some of the formulas and habits that have blocked progress for so long,” he said.

“Both sides are going to have to think anew.”

About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

Barack Obama began his third and final day in Israel by travelling to the grave of Theodore Herzl, who died in 1904 before his dream of a Jewish homeland was realized.

Accompanied by Israeli President Shimon Peres and PM Benjamin Netanyahu, he laid a wreath and placed a small rock on the headstone, a Jewish custom.

“It is humbling and inspiring to visit and remember the visionary who began the remarkable establishment of the State of Israel,” Barack Obama wrote in the visitors’ book.

“May our two countries possess the same vision and will to secure peace and prosperity for future generations.”

Barack Obama is concluding his trip to Israel and the West Bank by paying his respects to victims of the Holocaust and visiting Bethlehem photo

Barack Obama is concluding his trip to Israel and the West Bank by paying his respects to victims of the Holocaust and visiting Bethlehem

Barack Obama then walked to the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a right-wing extremist after a peace rally in support of the Oslo Accords in 1995.

He again laid a wreath and placed a rock on the headstone, and reportedly told Yitzhak Rabin’s children and grandchildren that he had been “a great man”, adding: “Sometimes it is harder to embark on peace than to embark on war.”

Barack Obama later visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, which he said illustrated the depravity to which man could sink but also served as a reminder of the “righteous among nations who refused to be bystanders”.

“The state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, such a holocaust will never happen again,” he added.

The Church of the Nativity was originally built in 399 above a cave traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus and rebuilt after fire in the 6th Century, it is among the holiest sites in Christianity.

On Friday afternoon Barack Obama will fly to Jordan, where he plans to hold talks with King Abdullah and spend the night.

Barack Obama and King Abdullah are expected to discuss Jordan’s struggle to cope with the influx of more than 350,000 refugees from Syria, the stalled Middle East peace process, and efforts at political reform in the kingdom.

President Barack Obama has met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a historical visit to the West Bank.

Barack Obama has said that the US is “deeply committed” to creating a sovereign state of Palestine.

Speaking after talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Barack Obama said Israeli settlement activity was not “appropriate for peace”.

US Secretary of State John Kerry would, the president added, devote time and energy trying to bring the two sides closer.

Mahmoud Abbas said the two men had held “good and useful” talks in Ramallah.

However, Palestinian expectations of Barack Obama’s visit have been low, analysts say.

President Barack Obama has met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a historical visit to the West Bank photo

President Barack Obama has met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a historical visit to the West Bank

On his first visit to Israel as US president on Wednesday, Barack Obama vowed strong support for the country.

At talks on Wednesday, Barack Obama and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed their commitment to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict

Speaking in Jerusalem, President Barack Obama said a central element of securing a lasting peace in the Middle East “must be a strong and secure Jewish state where its security concerns are met, alongside a sovereign and independent Palestinian state”.

Two rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel on Thursday morning, Israeli officials say, but there were no reports of anyone being hurt. A further two rockets fired from Gaza reportedly fell inside Gaza itself.

Mahmoud Abbas condemned “violence against civilians, whatever its source, including the firing of rockets”, according to a Palestinian spokesperson.

Barack Obama has arrived in Tel Aviv for his first trip to Israel as US president.

After landing in Tel Aviv, BarackObama also referred to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, saying “peace must come to the Holy Land”.

US officials have tried to lower expectations of any significant headway on restarting the peace process.

Syria, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions are expected to loom large in talks.

Correspondents say Israelis are more preoccupied with instability in the wider Middle East region than with breathing new life into the peace process, which broke down in 2010 amid a dispute over continued Israeli settlement construction.

Settlement supporters are a big force in Israel’s new coalition government.

Barack Obama was welcomed at Ben Gurion airport by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s President Shimon Peres.

After being introduced to Israeli ministers and dignitaries, Barack Obama said the US would “never lose sight of an Israel at peace with its neighbors”.

The US president added: “The United States stands with Israel because it is in our fundamental security interests to stand with Israel. Our alliance is eternal. It is forever.”

PM Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Thank you for defending Israel’s right to unequivocally defend its right to exist.”

Barack Obama has arrived in Tel Aviv for his first trip to Israel as US president photo

Barack Obama has arrived in Tel Aviv for his first trip to Israel as US president

Barack Obama is due to hold separate talks with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his three-day visit.

In the US, Barack Obama has been criticized for not having visited Israel in his first term as president, with some saying it shows he is not close enough to the country.

That is despite his administration’s repeated assertion that the two countries share an “unbreakable alliance”.

Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian security officers have been assembled in Jerusalem and the Palestinians’ de facto capital in the West Bank city of Ramallah, ahead of his trip.

The state of the economy and social issues dominated Israel’s last election, and Barack Obama has said he is not going to the region bearing any grand peace plan.

Barack Obama’s relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu has been notoriously frosty and one recent opinion poll suggested a mere 10% of the Israeli public had a favorable opinion of the US president.

The main event of this trip is a speech to the Israeli people – Barack Obama’s main task is to build bridges and improve his image, which could give him more leverage over the new Israeli government.

Yesterday, Palestinian protesters gathered in Ramallah and Bethlehem, some throwing shoes at images of Barack Obama and others driving over his portrait, reports said.

Demonstrator Huwaida Arraf told Reuters news agency that Barack Obama’s visit was “a slap in the face”.

“People are angry and disappointed that this far into his presidency, Obama has done nothing, and aid to Israel’s occupation continues to flow,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli demonstrators gathered in Jerusalem to demand barack Obama free Jonathan Pollard, imprisoned in the US in 1987 for spying for Israel.

Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Israel:

  • Wednesday: Meets PM Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Thursday: Meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
  • Friday: Visits Bethlehem’s Church of Nativity and later departs for Jordan

Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Palestinian Fatah faction, led by Mahmoud Abbas, are holding celebrations in Gaza to mark its 48th anniversary.

The rival Hamas movement, which governs Gaza, allowed Fatah to hold its first mass rally there since Hamas ousted Fatah’s forces five years ago.

Last month, supporters of Hamas celebrated their movement’s founding with a rare rally in the West Bank.

The moves are part of measures to heal a deep rift between the two sides.

Hamas came to power in Gaza after winning Palestinian elections in 2006 and ousting Fatah from the coastal enclave in clashes the following year.

In a pre-recorded message played on giant screens, President Mahmoud Abbas said: “Victory is near and we will meet you in Gaza in the near future,” AFP news agency reported.

“Gaza was the first Palestinian territory rid of [Israeli] occupation and settlement and we want a lifting of the blockade so that it can be free and linked to the rest of the nation,” he said from his West Bank power-base.

Huge crowds, carrying the yellow flags of the Fatah movement and pictures of Mahmoud Abbas, streamed into Gaza City, the climax to a week of smaller celebrations across the strip marking Fatah’s first attack against Israel.

Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Palestinian Fatah faction led by Mahmoud Abbas are holding celebrations in Gaza to mark its 48th anniversary 350x239 photo

Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Palestinian Fatah faction, led by Mahmoud Abbas, are holding celebrations in Gaza to mark its 48th anniversary

Fatah officials said half a million supporters turned out. Hamas put the figure at 200,000.

“The message today is that Fatah cannot be wiped out,” Amal Hamad, a member of the group’s ruling body, told Reuters news agency.

“Fatah lives, no-one can exclude it and it seeks to end the division.”

Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal signed a reconciliation deal in Cairo in 2011, but it has not been implemented.

In a speech during a visit to Gaza last month, Khaled Meshaal urged “reconciliation and national unity of the Palestinian ranks”.

“Palestine is for all of us, we are partners in this nation. Hamas cannot do without Fatah or Fatah without Hamas, or any movement,” he said.

Hamas, an Islamist movement, and the secular Fatah, fundamentally disagree in their approach towards Israel. Hamas has refused to renounce violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist or accept peace accords between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and Israel.

Relations between Fatah and Hamas collapsed in June 2007 when Mahmoud Abbas ordered the dissolution of the Hamas-led unity government amid deadly clashes between the factions in Gaza. Hamas subsequently routed Fatah forces in Gaza and set up a rival government there.

Hamas-Fatah split

  • January 2006: Hamas wins Palestinian elections
  • March 2007: Hamas-led unity government formed
  • June 2007: Hamas-Fatah clashes erupt in Gaza; PA President Abbas dissolves government; Hamas ousts Fatah from Gaza
  • May 2011: Hamas and Fatah sign reconciliation accord

Tens of thousands of people have gathered to attend a rally in the Gaza Strip to mark the 25th anniversary of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

Hamas exiled political leader Khaled Meshaal has arrived to address the crowd during his first ever visit to the territory.

Khaled Meshaal’s visit follows a ceasefire that ended days of violence between Israel and Hamas last month.

He is expected to unveil a future strategy for Hamas and talk of reconciliation with its rival, Fatah.

Hamas removed Fatah from Gaza by force in 2007 after winning elections there. Fatah governs parts of the West Bank.

The event is intended to send a message that, after 25 years, Hamas is a force to be reckoned with.

It enjoys support in Gaza and feels it is gaining regional political influence after the Arab uprisings brought new Islamist governments to power, she adds.

Tens of thousands of Gazans have made their way to the rally at the al-Qatiba complex west of Gaza City to hear the speech by Khaled Meshaal.

It is expected to focus on key issues such as the strategy with Israel, the future leadership of Hamas and reconciliation with Fatah.

Tens of thousands of people have gathered to attend a rally in the Gaza Strip to mark the 25th anniversary of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas 350x217 photo

Tens of thousands of people have gathered to attend a rally in the Gaza Strip to mark the 25th anniversary of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas

In 2011, Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – the Fatah leader – endorsed an Egyptian plan to reconcile the rival factions.

But it is unlikely such a rally will hear any signs of moderation in the strategy towards Israel.

The centrepiece of Saturday’s rally in Gaza City is a huge replica of a type of rocket Hamas militants fired at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in the conflict with Israel last month. It has Made in Gaza written on it.

Some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in the eight-day engagement and Hamas has presented Saturday’s event as a victory rally.

Ahmed Shaheen, attending the rally with his children, told Reuters: “This is a day of victory. The presence of Khaled Meshaal is a sign of this victory.”

Israel says its operation killed Hamas’s military commander and significantly reduced the militants’ stockpile of rockets.

Israel, the US and the EU consider Hamas a terrorist organization.

In terms of the Hamas leadership, Khaled Meshaal said in January he did not wish to stand again as political chief and the future make-up at the top remains unclear.

Khaled Meshaal entered Gaza from Egypt at the Rafah border crossing on Friday, touching his head to the ground in celebration. The streets of Gaza City were decorated with Palestinian and Hamas flags.

Correspondents say he was clearly aware of the desire among Palestinians for an end to the divisions that have weakened their cause.

Standing in the ruins of a house destroyed in an Israeli air strike, he said: “With God’s will… reconciliation will be achieved. National unity is at hand.”

Apart from a brief visit to the West Bank in 1975, Khaled Meshaal had not visited the Palestinian territories since his family left in 1967.

He survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997 only after King Hussein demanded an antidote to poison used by Israeli agents.

An Israeli official said that no guarantees for Khaled Meshaal’s safety in Gaza had been requested and none had been given.

Israel has authorized the construction of 3,000 more housing units in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

It is also speeding up the processing of 1,000 planning permissions.

The Palestinian Authority has said it will not return to peace talks without a freeze in settlement building.

The decision comes a day after a vote at the UN General Assembly upgraded the Palestinians’ status at the UN to that of non-member observer state.

According to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, some of the new units will be between Jerusalem and the settlement of Maaleh Adumim.

Plans to build settlements in the area, known as E1, are strongly opposed by Palestinians, who say the development will cut the West Bank in two, preventing the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.

The move is a first indication of Israeli anger, less than 24 hours after the vote on Palestinian status was held at the UN.

The Palestinians may well have been expecting this – or something like it – but it is a reminder that the gulf between the two on the settlement issue remains huge.

Earlier this month, a paper by the Israeli foreign ministry described the Palestinians’ pushing for the vote as “crossing a red line that will require the harshest Israeli response”.

About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

Earlier on Friday, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said the UN vote was “negative political theatre” that would “hurt peace”.

The General Assembly voted by 138-9 to recognize the Palestinians as a non-member observer state, with 41 states abstaining.

The Palestinians can now take part in UN debates and potentially join bodies like the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said it was the “last chance to save the two-state solution” with Israel.

Two decades of on-off negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank have failed to produce a permanent settlement, with the latest round of direct negotiations breaking down in 2010.

In January, several months of indirect “proximity talks” ended without any progress.

Palestinian negotiators insist that the building of Jewish settlements on occupied land must stop before they agree to resume direct talks.

Their Israeli counterparts say there can be no preconditions.

Mahmoud Abbas was much criticized by many Palestinians for remaining on the sidelines of the conflict between the militant Hamas movement and Israel earlier this month in Gaza.

Representatives of Israel and Hamas have begun indirect talks on ceasefire deal that ended the recent violence in Gaza.

The negotiations are being led by Egyptian intermediaries in Cairo.

Hamas is expected to press for an end of the Israeli blockade on Gaza, while Israel wants arms smuggling to cease.

At least 158 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in the eight-day offensive which Israel said it launched to stop rocket-fire from the territory.

Under the terms of the initial ceasefire, agreed on Wednesday, Israel agreed to end all hostilities and targeted killings, while Hamas agreed to stop attacks against Israel and along the Gaza border fence.

The deal also called for the “opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods”, with the timing other details to be discussed “after 24 hours” of the ceasefire coming into effect.

Israeli negotiators are reported to be asking for an assurance that the smuggling of weapons under Gaza’s southern border with Egypt will end.

“Israel is proposing this, no doubt,” Hamas deputy political leader Moussa Abu Marzouk told the AFP news agency.

“But at no stage was it part of the understanding for a ceasefire. They proposed it in the media, but not during the talks,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal has telephoned the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, to say the Islamist movement “welcomed” his bid to have Palestine recognized as a “non-member observer state” at the United Nations.

The announcement by Hamas was unexpected. Its leaders have previously dismissed the UN approach as a waste of time.

Mahmoud Abbas has said he will push for a vote on the issue at the UN General Assembly on Thursday. If it is approved – as it expected to be – it will improve the Palestinians’ chances of joining UN agencies and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Currently, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the umbrella group which represents most Palestinian factions and conducts negotiations with Israel, only has “permanent observer” status at the UN.

Israel and the US have threatened financial penalties if the Palestinians press ahead with the UN bid, saying the only way to achieve an independent state is through negotiations.

At least 21 people have been injured in an explosion on a bus in Tel Aviv, in what one Israeli official described as a “terrorist attack”.

After the incident, near a military headquarters, huge blasts were heard in Gaza – an apparent Israeli strike on the football stadium.

Eleven people were killed in Gaza on Wednesday, the health ministry said.

Efforts to broker a truce between the Hamas movement and Israel continue.

After eight days of exchanges of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now in Cairo for talks with the Egyptian president.

Earlier, Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon held talks in the West Bank with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Militants in Gaza have been firing more rockets at Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Ofir Gendelman said on his Twitter account that the explosion was caused by a bomb and that it was a “terrorist attack”.

Of the 21 injured, three were suffering from moderate to light injuries – including shrapnel wounds and burns – and were undergoing surgery, a spokesman for the Ichilov medical centre in Tel Aviv said.

Six had already been released and the rest were suffering from anxiety, he said.

The bus was reportedly passing the military headquarters in the city at the time of the blast.

Police believe a bomb was planted on the bus and they are still searching for a suspect.

At least 21 people have been injured in an explosion on a bus in Tel Aviv in what one Israeli official described as a terrorist attack 350x196 photo

At least 21 people have been injured in an explosion on a bus in Tel Aviv, in what one Israeli official described as a terrorist attack

Hamas, the Islamist movement which has governed Gaza since 2007, has praised the attack but has not said it was behind the blast.

Celebratory gunfire reportedly rang out in Gaza when local radio relayed news of the attack.

A series of massive explosions in Gaza, in an apparent Israeli strike on the sports stadium have been reported. Reports from Gaza say the stadium has in the past been used a site to launch rockets.

According to Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs, the last bomb attack in Tel Aviv was in April 2006, when a suicide bombing on a restaurant killed 11.

The bus blast comes on the eighth day of the current flare-up in violence between Israel and militants in Gaza.

Some 147 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed.

Other sites hit in Gaza included a banker’s villa, tunnels to Egypt used by smugglers and a media office, said to be linked to Hamas, that was situated two floors above the Agence France-Presse office in Gaza City.

The IDF said 62 rockets fired by militants from Gaza had hit Israel so far on Wednesday, while another 20 were intercepted by its Iron Dome missile defence system.

The latest violence will further complicate ceasefire discussions taking place in the region.

The two international mediators are both expected to hold talks with Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi in Cairo.

In the West Bank, Ban Ki-moon expressed “profound concern” at the civilian casualties in Gaza and also called on militants to end immediately their “indiscriminate attacks on Israeli population centres”.

Hillary Clinton held talks with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem before heading to Cairo.

Officials from Hamas had suggested on Tuesday that a truce would come into effect at midnight, but Israel later said it had not agreed to a text.

Israel’s demands include no hostile fire of any kind from Gaza and international efforts to prevent Hamas from re-arming, while Hamas is demanding an end to the blockade on Gaza and targeted killings by Israel.

Israel launched its current offensive a week ago with the killing of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari. The Israeli government says his assassination, and the subsequent offensive, is designed to end rocket fire from Gaza.

Israel has troops massed along the Gaza border but says it is holding off on a possible ground invasion as talks continue.

Ceasefire demands

Israel

  • No more hostile fire from Gaza
  • International moves to stop Hamas rearming
  • Prevent militants crossing to Sinai Peninsula
  • Extended period of quiet for southern Israel

Hamas

  • End to Israeli “aggression”
  • End to blockade of Gaza
  • No more targeted killings by Israel

President Mahmoud Abbas has declared three days of mourning after at least eight Palestinian children have been killed in a collision between a school bus and an Israeli lorry on a road in the West Bank.

The school bus was carrying children as young as five or six on their way to Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem.

The vehicle overturned on impact and burst into flames. More than 30 children were injured, and there are fears the death toll may rise.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed his sorrow and offered assistance.

The bus is believed to have been carrying up to 50 children at the time of the crash, which happened on a busy road junction.

At least one report said a teacher had also been killed.

At least eight Palestinian children have been killed in a collision between a school bus and an Israeli lorry on a road in the West Bank photo

At least eight Palestinian children have been killed in a collision between a school bus and an Israeli lorry on a road in the West Bank


In a broadcast, President Mahmoud Abbas described the accident as a horrific national disaster and said all flags would fly at half-mast.

“The toll so far shows that more than 10 children have died and scores of injured are receiving treatment in various medical centres in the West Bank,” he said.

The higher figure of the number of dead has not been confirmed.

The children were apparently travelling from their school in the West Bank village of Anata when the two vehicles collided, head-on, according to reports.

The lorry driver, an Israeli-Arab, was injured.

Dr. Ahmad Bitawi, director of Ramallah Hospital, said five children and a teacher had been pronounced dead at the hospital, while a further 54 people injured in the crash were treated there, Reuters news agency reported.

Some of the survivors were also taken to Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Hospital.

“It is an ugly, unbelievable, terrible accident; it shakes the feelings of the whole world because it includes babies,” Adham Al-Hindin, uncle of two injured children, told Reuters.

The road conditions in the area were “pretty treacherous” following heavy rain overnight and the accident had happened during morning rush hour.

Shalom Galil – an Israeli paramedic at the scene – also said the adverse weather conditions appeared to have been a factor.

He said the steep road where the crash happened had been affected by oil. “We assume that either the bus or the truck slipped and crashed into each other.”

Shalom Galil said Israeli and Palestinian emergency services had worked closely together at the scene.

“Palestinian firefighters were involved. As far as I could see, there was full co-operation between the firefighters of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] and the Palestinian firefighters.”