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Ford earnings, jobless claims to lift Wall Street

U.S. stock -index futures rose on Thursday, as weekly jobless claims cast a positive light on the labor market, with the data coming on one of the heaviest days of the season for U.S. and European second-quarter earnings.

Futures held modest gains after the government reported weekly jobless claims came in at 284,000 last week, less than the 308,000 estimated by analysts.

"The net is this number in improving; the four-week average went down by 7,000 to 302,000. That smooths out some of the summer volatility and is a significant positive," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities.

Shares of Wal-Mart Stores fell in pre-market trading after the discount retailer said CEO Bill Simon would leave the company.

Around 50 S&P 500-listed companies will report on Thursday, with Caterpillar shares falling in early New York trading after the maker of earth-moving machinery reported a second-quarter earnings beat, but fell short on revenue.

Read MoreCaterpillar sees Q2 earnings beat, but revenue disappoints

Ford Motor shares gained after the auto manufacturer reported Read Morea better-than-expected second-quarter profit; General Motors shares fell after the car maker reported a lower-than-expected second-quarter profit.

Economic data due later in the session includes new-home sales for June at 10 a.m. and weekly natural gas inventories at 10:30 a.m.

Earlier on Thursday, Asian markets rose on HSBC's flash Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) of Chinese factory activity for July. The index rose to an 18-month high of 52, better than a Reuters poll of 51 and the bank's final reading of 50.7 in June.

"It's a very good strong number to start the third quarter with. It seems that [the government's] mini stimulus measures are continuing to filter through," said John Zhu, greater China economist at HSBC.

A record close on the S&P 500 index on Wednesday also boosted sentiment in Asia. The benchmark index posted its 26th record finish this year at 1,987 points.

Boeing lost more than 2 percent after posting earnings on Wednesday. But Facebook jumped nearly 4 percent to a record in late trading after its results.

Read MoreCan Facebook sustain its bumper earnings?

Events in Ukraine and Gaza will remain in focus for investors.

European Union diplomats are due to announce potential sanctions against Russia Thursday, following a meeting of foreign ministers earlier this week.

Fighting continues in the east of Ukraine, with Ukraine's defense ministry reporting on Wednesday that two Su-25 fighters had been blown up by surface-to-air missiles.

In addition, a Ukrainian separatist commander has told Reuters that rebels possessed BUK missiles, the type that is believed to have shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

In Israel, the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority lifted its ban on airlines flying to Tel Aviv, but warned that it will continue to monitor the city's airport following reports of rocket fire this week.

Read MoreIsraelis rush to apps in Gaza conflict

The United Nations Human Rights Council said Israel may have committed war crimes in its killing of hundreds of civilians during the near three-week offensive on Gaza.

On Thursday, the Treasury is scheduled to auction $15 billion in new 10-year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS).

"We like this issue on a break-even basis; however, on an outright basis, real yields are quite rich," said Barclays Research analysts Ajay Rajadhyaksha, Dean Maki in a note.

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