Israel's cabinet yesterday unanimously rejected a US-backed proposal for a week-long "humanitarian pause" in the offensive on Gaza after 18 days of fighting that has claimed more than 800 Palestinian lives.
Binyamin Netanyhau and his ministers reached their decision on a day when Gaza's death toll reached 848 and five more Palestinians were killed in protests that spread to the West Bank. Hamas had already signalled its opposition to the terms of the US plan, which it deemed too favourable to Israel.
Human rights watchdogs say that some 80 percent of the Palestinian dead have been civilians, many of them women or children.
The Israeli decision, reported by Israel's Channel 2 TV, left the US secretary of state, John Kerry, struggling to find a way to continue his efforts to halt the bloodshed.
Unrwa, the UN refugee agency, said 150,000 people were now seeking shelter.
Militants again fired rockets out of Gaza, triggering sirens across southern and central Israel, including at the country's main airport. No injuries were reported, with the Iron Dome interceptor system knocking out many of the missiles.
Kerry spent the day holding talks and working the phones in Cairo in an atmosphere of what officials described as "cautious optimism" about the outcome of efforts to secure a truce.
Parallel contacts, between Turkey and the Hamas leader, Khaled Mishal, were also taking place in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Mishal has insisted on an end to the siege of Gaza; Israel on an end to cross-border attacks. The gap between the two sides is wide.
In a statement released by UN Chief Ban Ki-moon's office, Ban called for "an immediate, unconditional humanitarian pause in the fighting in Gaza and Israel."
"This pause would last through the Eid al-Fitr holiday period," Ban said, adding that a halt in the fighting could lead to a "longer-term ceasefire plan".
Israel army radio reported that Netanyahu's ministers had been divided over the wisdom of accepting Kerry's proposal, which was being supported by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. Hawkish ministers were said to favour widening the ground operation in Gaza and warning against any gain for Hamas.
Under the US plan, Israeli troops could stay behind after a ceasefire to continue destroying cross-border tunnels. The week-long truce would be followed by talks on more permanent arrangements, under Egyptian supervision.
General Sami Turgeman, head of Israel's southern command, said his forces needed more time to destroy the tunnels in Gaza. Hinting at the growing pressure for a ceasefire, he told reporters: "We know that there are other timetables that can affect us, and we will use all the time that we have at our disposal."
Turgeman said Hamas fighters were in poor shape and were finding it harder to launch rockets into Israel.
The West Bank fatalities yesterday followed a big demonstration on Thursday night at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in which 10,000 demonstrators marched in solidarity with Gaza.
Two men were shot dead by Israeli troops and about 250 people injured, mostly from gunshots.
"Ambulances were coming every minute," said a doctor in the hospital's emergency department. "We have seen this before but not since the intifada," he said, referring to the last Palestinian uprising.
Israel announced that an army reservist had been killed in Gaza, bringing to 34 the number of soldiers lost since its ground offensive began.
Unwra issued a strongly-worded statement about the Israeli military when a team including an international weapons expert visited the school at Beit Hanoun which came under attack on Thursday, causing at least 15 deaths and 200 injuries.
"The aim of the visit to the site was to survey the scene in the aftermath of the incident," Unwra said.
"The Israeli army had been notified in advance about the composition of the team, the time and purpose of the visit. The mission had to be cut short and the team was forced to leave the area after gunfire around the school. We again underline our call for an immediate and comprehensive investigation."