United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday called on Israel to exercise "maximum restraint" in its operation focused on Gaza, saying in Jerusalem that the loss of civilian lives was "unacceptable under any circumstances."
Speaking at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the two held a meeting, Ban also said he "strongly cautioned against a ground invasion" of the Palestinian enclave.
The latest wave of violence - which includes rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza, and Israeli airstrikes on Gaza - began on 14 November. A chorus of UN officials, beginning with the Secretary-General, have appealed for an end to the violence and strongly urged the parties to achieve an immediate ceasefire.
"Rockets have hit areas just outside of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as Israeli towns near Gaza, killing and injuring civilians," said Ban, calling the attacks "unacceptable, irresponsible and reckless."
"I strongly condemn these actions," he states. "Rocket attacks by Palestinian militants targeting Israel must cease immediately."
He added that any further escalation benefits no one. "I know how difficult the situation is here, but Israel must exercise maximum restraint," he said, also taking noted of an Israeli statement that Israeli military operations focused on "military facilities."
"While Israeli rockets may be aimed at military targets inside Gaza, they kill and injure civilians and damage civilian infrastructures," he said. "The loss of civilian lives is unacceptable under any circumstances. The excessive use of force is unlawful and must be rejected.
He added that, in the course of military operations, civilians are "apt to be victimized, as we have seen."
The Secretary-General said his "paramount immediate concern" was for the safety and well-being of all civilians - in Israel and in Gaza.
"Innocent people, including children, are being killed and injured on both sides," he said. "I appeal to all those commanding, bearing and operating arms - weapons - to respect international humanitarian law to ensure the protection of civilians at all times."
Ban made similar points at a press conference with Israeli President Shimon Peres, with whom he also met privately, in addition to holding meetings with several other Israeli leaders.
In the Egyptian capital of Cairo earlier, Ban held separate meetings there with the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, Nabil Elaraby, and the Egyptian Prime Minister, Hisham Mohamed Qandil.
At press conferences with the two leaders, Ban called for an immediate ceasefire by "all sides" involved in the violence in Gaza, echoed previous statements in saying that rocket fire from Gaza into Israel was "unacceptable," and said publically for the first time that an Israeli ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave would mark a "dangerous escalation" that must be avoided.
He spoke at that time as media reports, citing Egyptian and Palestinian officials, said a ceasefire in the conflict was "imminent," and that Israel had put its plans for a land invasion on hold, though it had made no official comment.
"My message is clear: all sides must stop fire," Ban said during his press conference with Qandil. "Further escalating the situation will only result in more tragedy, and puts the entire region at risk. That is why a ground operation must be avoided. That is why it is urgent to contain the present crisis."
At his joint press encounter with Elaraby, the UN chief said he and his Arab League counterpart shared a "deep concern" about the "appalling rising cost in human lives."
"A new cycle of bloodshed will make neither Israelis nor Palestinians more secure," Ban told reporters.
"Nor will bloodshed open the door to negotiations that could achieve the two-state solution necessary to end the occupation and such violence permanently," he added, citing an end goal that would see Israel and an independent Palestinian exist peacefully side by side.
While he also highlighted that Israel had "legitimate security concerns that must be respected in accordance with international law," he added that a "ground invasion would be a dangerous escalation."
In Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, added her concerns about Palestinian and Israeli civilians caught up in the ongoing crisis, which has seen continued rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes on targets in the territory.
"She is dismayed by the marked surge in the number of Palestinian civilians, including women and children, killed and injured over the past 48 hours as a result of Israeli military action," said a spokesperson for Pillay, according to a press release from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Right (OHCHR).
"According to information gathered by OHCHR monitors on the ground, the civilian death toll has more than doubled during this period," the spokesperson added, noting that available information on Tuesday morning showed that at least 57 civilians, including 18 children, had been killed, and hundreds injured since Israel launched its military operation on Nov 14 .
Gaza is run by the Palestinian group Hamas, which seized control of the territory a year after winning elections there in 2007.
While in the Middle East, Ban is also scheduled to travel to Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He said the Palestinian leader's efforts at finding a "long-overdue two-state solution" were now "more crucial than ever."
"I am deeply worried that efforts to facilitate renewed negotiations to achieve a two-state solution have failed to produce a breakthrough," the Secretary-General said about the stalled Middle East peace process in his news conference with Qandil. "Yet, the present crisis proves again that the status quo is unsustainable and that a negotiated two-state solution ending a prolonged occupation is more urgent than ever."
In addition, Ban recalled travelling to the region under "similar circumstances" in early 2009, after Israeli forces entered Gaza amid rocket attacks from the enclave into Israel. "It is extremely painful for me to be back for the same reason, for the same situation, and to see that the parties are no closer to ending their hostilities," he said.