* PLO endorsement could help Cairo's truce bid
* Israel presses offensive, Gaza toll hits 624
* Foreign airlines shun Tel Aviv over rocket risk
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams
GAZA/JERUSALEM, July 23 The Palestinian
decision-making body led by U.S.-backed President Mahmoud Abbas
on Wednesday endorsed demands by Hamas for halting Gaza
hostilities with Israel, a closing of ranks that may help
Egyptian-mediated truce efforts.
With Israeli and U.S. encouragement, Egypt has tried to get
both sides to hold fire and then negotiate terms for protracted
calm in the Palestinian enclave where officials said 624 people,
mostly civilians, have been killed in 15 days of fighting.
Hamas, the Gaza Strip's dominant Islamists, and other armed
factions had balked at Cairo's offer, saying they wanted
assurances of relief from an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and other
concessions. The dispute was further complicated by distrust
between Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamas.
In a move that could effectively turn Abbas into the main
interlocutor for a Gaza truce, his umbrella Palestine Liberation
Organisation (PLO) on Wednesday formally supported core
conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.
"The Gaza demands of stopping the aggression and lifting the
blockade in all its forms are the demands of the entire
Palestinian people and they represent the goal that the
Palestinian leadership has dedicated all its power to achieve,"
senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said in Ramallah, the hub
city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Abbas is based.
"We are confident Gaza will not be broken as long as our
people are standing beside it to support it through all possible
means until the invaders understand that our great people inside
the homeland and outside will not leave Gaza alone."
Signalling that Abbas, too, sought a staggered cessation of
hostilities, the Palestinian leader's Fatah faction on Tuesday
proposed a truce followed by five days of negotiations on terms.
There was no immediate response to the PLO statement from
Hamas or Israel, which pressed the Gaza offensive it began on
July 8 after a surge of cross-border rocket salvoes.
VIOLENCE AFFECTS FLIGHTS
Three people died in Israeli strikes in Gaza on Wednesday,
Palestinian officials said. Rocket launches set off air-raid
sirens in southern Israel, but there was no word of casualties.
Bloodshed spread to the West Bank, where a Palestinian was
shot dead by Israeli troops near Bethlehem. The army said
soldiers fired a rubber bullet at him during a confrontation
with dozens of Palestinians hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Egyptian sources, speaking on Tuesday as U.S. Secretary of
State John Kerry visited Cairo to advance truce efforts, said a
unified Palestinian position could help achieve a deal.
Unlike Hamas, which refuses permanent coexistence with the
Jewish state, the PLO has pursued peacemaking for two decades.
Those efforts were set back in April when Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off U.S.-sponsored peace
negotiations over Abbas's surprise power-share deal with Hamas.
Yet Netanyahu stopped short of cutting ties with Abbas,
whose forces help secure the West Bank, and foreign mediators
continue to see the Palestinian leader as someone the Israelis
can negotiate with.
Israel has lost 27 soldiers in the Gaza clashes and two
civilians to shelling by Palestinian fighters that has reached
deep into the Jewish state, spreading panic despite the success
of its Iron Dome rocket interceptor and civilian shelters.
Having unilaterally accepted an Egyptian-proposed truce last
week that was rejected by Hamas, the Israelis made clear on
Tuesday they would not stand down before their forces destroyed
Hamas's military infrastructure including rocket sites and a
network of tunnels used for cross-border Palestinian raids.
"A cease-fire is not near," said Justice Minister Tzipi
Livni, the most dovish member of Netanyahu's security cabinet.
Yet Israel faced mounting international alarm at the toll on
Palestinian civilians, as well as economic pressure from lost
tourism that soared on Tuesday when the U.S. Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) took the rare step of banning flights to
Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport for at least 24
hours after a rocket from Gaza struck nearby, wounding two
European airlines also cancelled flights to Israel, whose
own carriers continued to operate.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu asked Kerry to help
restore the U.S. flights. A U.S. official said the Obama
administration would not "overrule the FAA" on a security
precaution but noted the ban would be reviewed after 24 hours.
FOCUS ON HAMAS
Following meetings in Egypt, which has some leverage over
Hamas through its control of its border with Gaza, Kerry said on
Tuesday there was still "work to do" to resolve the conflict and
urged the Palestinian Islamists to pursue negotiations.
Because Washington, like Israel and the European Union,
deems Hamas a terrorist group, they have no direct contact and
Washington must rely on proxies such as Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.
In a sign of the intensity of the U.S. diplomacy, Kerry
spoke to Netanyahu and to Qatari and Turkish foreign ministers
after meeting Sisi for two hours, a senior U.S. official said.
"The Egyptians have provided a framework and a forum for
them to be able to come to the table to have a serious
discussion together with other factions of the Palestinians,"
Kerry said. "Hamas has a fundamental choice to make and it is a
choice that will have a profound impact for the people of Gaza."
Angered by an Israeli crackdown on its supporters in the
West Bank and by Gaza's hardship under blockade, Hamas has said
it is willing to continue fighting. In addition to freeing up
Gaza's borders, Hamas wants a prisoner release by Israel.
The Egyptian plan does not specify a timeline for easing the
blockade, saying "crossings shall be opened and the passage of
persons and goods through border crossings shall be facilitated
once the security situation becomes stable on the ground".
U.S. officials view Qatar, a tiny, gas-rich Gulf state that
has supported Hamas financially and hosts some of the militant
group's senior leaders, as important to the diplomacy.
In contrast, the Egyptian government is deeply suspicious of
Hamas as it is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement
toppled from power in Cairo by then-army chief Sisi last year.
Israel is openly opposed to giving Qatar or Turkey leading
roles in mediation, given its troubled ties with both countries.
The upcoming Eid al-Fitr festival - Islam's biggest annual
celebration that follows the end of the fasting month of Ramadan
this weekend - could provide all sides with a convenient moment
to agree to a cease-fire.
Asked about Eid, a senior Obama administration official
said: "It's a potential opportunity. We want there to be a
cease-fire as soon as possible basically, and insofar as that's
a marker that can compel Hamas to the table that would be a good
thing, but the bottom line is they're going to have to stop
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Cairo and Amena
Bakr in Doha; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Ken Wills)