GAZA CITY - Washington warned its Israeli ally Monday against any ground invasion of Gaza, as Egyptian officials said the US top diplomat was headed to the region to join efforts to end a week of deadly violence.
The White House stopped short of criticising Israel over the civilian casualty toll from its devastating air and artillery bombardment of the densely populated Palestinian enclave that has drawn flak from the United Nations and human rights watchdogs.
It said the Israeli government had the "right" and "responsibility" to defend its citizens against rocket attacks by Hamas from its Gaza stronghold.
But it said even more civilians would be put at risk were Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to heed hardliners in his governing coalition and send in troops and armour. "Nobody wants to see a ground invasion because that would put more civilians at risk," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
It was the first time that the White House has specifically warned in a public forum against an Israeli invasion of Gaza, although other US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have previously said Washington would not like to see such a step. With Israel's punishing air campaign in its seventh day, the death toll in Gaza hit 177, prompting growing calls for a ceasefire which have so far showed little sign of progress.
Ahead of an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, Hamas shot down hopes of a deal to end the violence, saying no serious moves had been made.
"Talk of a ceasefire requires real and serious efforts, which we haven't seen so far," Hamas MP Mushir al-Masri told AFP in Gaza City.
"Any ceasefire must be based on the conditions we have outlined. Nothing less than that will be accepted," he said, in a show of defiance in the face of the withering Israeli bombardment. Israel has said it is not ready to countenance a ceasefire either, as it seeks to deal ever harsher blows to Hamas and stamp out its capacity to fire rockets deep into the Jewish state.
In a bid to add Washington's weight to truce efforts, Kerry is to fly into Cairo on Tuesday, Egyptian state media reported.
There was no immediate comment from the State Department, with Israeli press reports suggesting Kerry would also visit Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah, headquarters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
In Gaza City's Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood, relatives of a retired economics professor in his 80s looked at the damage to his home, clearly bemused as to why it should have been targeted by an Israeli missile.
This time, the family escaped unharmed, fleeing after an initial warning strike. But the missile itself failed to explode, drawing a crowd of curious onlookers as officials wondered how to remove it.
Human rights groups say more than 75 percent of the dead have been non-combatants. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees says more than a quarter of them have been children.
Although Israel has confirmed preparations for a possible ground attack, it appeared to be holding off with the security cabinet meeting reportedly deciding against putting boots on the ground - for now.
But the pace of the air strikes slowed noticeably on Monday.
Seven people were killed, far fewer than the 56 killed on Saturday, the bloodiest day by far of a campaign which began before dawn on July 8 with the aim of halting militant rocket fire on southern Israel.
So far, no Israelis have been killed. A handful have been seriously wounded.
The rocket fire has since intensified, with Hamas militants launching more than 800 rockets at cities across Israel, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the northern city of Hadera. A further 187 have been shot down.
"The military steps being taken by both sides in the last 24 hours were a function, among other things, of the developments in the dialogue," Alex Fishman wrote in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
"If no catastrophe takes place that causes a particularly high number of fatalities on either side, the likelihood is that the fire will abate as early as this week."
As the human scale of the tragedy grew, a senior military official said the army was using a "pain map," hitting targets seen as most valuable to the Islamist movement.
So far, Hamas does not appear in any mood for concessions.
Masri said its conditions would include a lifting of Israel's eight-year blockade on Gaza, the opening of its Rafah border crossing with Egypt, and the release of prisoners Israel rearrested after freeing them in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.
Speaking to AFP in Cairo, another Hamas official said a general framework had been presented, but the leadership wanted more than it gained in a previous truce which ended the last major round of violence with Israel.
"We need to build on the 2012 truce and move forward," he said.
In another attack, five Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes in Gaza, raising the toll from a week-long offensive to 184, more than in the last conflict in 2012.
Emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said the latest strikes killed three people in southern Gaza's Rafah, including a four-year-old, and two people in Khan Yunis, also in the south.