GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in a whirlwind diplomatic tour Wednesday in Israel, said there were signs of progress in cease-fire talks, but prospects for a quick end to the fighting were dim as Palestinian families fled fierce battles in southern Gaza and the death toll rose to more than 700 Palestinians and 34 Israelis.
Underscoring the challenges facing international negotiators shuttling around the Middle East in a high-profile bid to end the bloodshed, the leader of Hamas insisted the militants would not relent until their main demand of lifting an Egyptian-Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is met.
On the ground, meanwhile, Israeli troops backed by tanks and aerial drones clashed with Hamas fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on the outskirts of Khan Younis, killing at least eight militants, according to a Palestinian health official. Hundreds of people fled their homes as the battle unfolded, flooding into the streets with what few belongings they could carry, many with children in tow. They said they were seeking shelter in nearby UN schools.
‘‘The airplanes and airstrikes are all around us,’’ said Aziza Msabah, a resident of the city in the southern Gaza Strip.
Kerry, whose efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement collapsed this year, held intensive talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after having met in the occupied West Bank with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But for the moment, the prospects for a cease-fire seemed remote.
“We will continue to push for this cease-fire,” Kerry said in Ramallah. “We have in the last 24 hours made some progress in moving toward that goal.”
But several hours later Kerry shook hands with a grim-faced Netanyahu at the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces in Tel Aviv.
Neither of them took questions before or after a two-hour meeting. Kerry then flew back to Cairo, where he had spent part of Tuesday in discussions with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, whose cease-fire proposal had provided the framework for discussions on how to arrange one.
While Kerry has emphasized that his immediate goal is to obtain a cease-fire, he also has said that he hopes to lay the groundwork for a “sustainable process going forward” following an end to the fighting. That seemed to be a way to assure the Palestinians in Gaza that the United States was prepared to address some of their long-term economic and political grievances and to acknowledge Netanyahu’s argument that a way needs to be found to demilitarize Gaza.
But Kerry’s decision to relegate such issues to a subsequent phase of the negotiations — after a cease-fire is established — also appeared to be an implicit recognition of the difficulties.
Israel has insisted it must substantially curb the military capabilities of the militant group that controls Gaza — a position that appears to have gained support within the US administration — while Hamas has demanded the lifting of a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade on the impoverished coastal territory it has ruled since 2007.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said in a televised speech that the opening of the border crossings was a red line.
‘‘When it comes to the balance of power in this crisis between us and Israel, they are the executioners, the aggressors, the occupiers, the settlers, and we are the true owners of the land,’’ he said from his home-in-exile in Doha, Qatar.
Israel launched a massive air campaign on July 8 to stop Hamas rocket fire into Israel and expanded it last week to a ground war aimed at destroying tunnels the military says Hamas has constructed from Gaza into Israel for attacks against Israelis. At least 74 Palestinians were killed on Wednesday and early Thursday, raising the overall death toll in the 16-day war to 702, according to Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra.
Israel said five more of its soldiers were killed, bringing the military’s death toll to 32. Two Israeli civilians also have died, and a Thai worker in Israel was killed when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Wednesday, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said.
The UN’s top human rights official demanded Wednesday that all sides refrain from indiscriminate attacks on civilians, warning that violations may amount to war crimes.
The warning by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay came at a special meeting of the UN’s top human rights body, which voted 29-1 to authorize an international commission of inquiry to investigate all alleged abuses since mid-June in the Gaza Strip. Only the United States voted against the resolution championed by Arab nations. Another 17 of the Human Rights Council’s 47 member-states abstained.
Israel said the council’s decision to investigate Israel’s role in the conflict sent a message to extremist groups around the world that using human shields — which it accuses Hamas of doing — was an ‘‘effective strategy.’’
Because Hamas rockets have landed near the international airport in Tel Aviv, the FAA extended its ban Wednesday on US flights to the city. However, the agency lifted the ban late Wednesday.Material from The New York Times was included in this report.