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Gaza cease-fire set for 72 hours, say U.S., U.N.

Israel, Hamas accept pause to let aid flow to civilians


This article was published August 1, 2014 at 3:35 a.m.


Palestinian firefighters work around the burning rubble of a milk factory in Gaza City that was hit Thursday by an Israeli airstrike.

A woman looks at the damage Thursday in a neighborhood in Kiryat Gat, Israel, after a rocket fired from Gaza struck, seriously wounding one Israeli. T...

JERUSALEM -- Israel and Hamas have agreed to a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire to begin this morning, the United Nations and United States announced, although Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned there were "no guarantees" the lull in violence would bring an end to the 24-day-old Gaza war.

The announcement was made hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to destroy Hamas' tunnel network "with or without a cease-fire" and as the Palestinian death toll rose past 1,400.

In a statement released in New Delhi, where Kerry is traveling, the U.S. and the U.N. said they had gotten assurances that all parties to the conflict had agreed to an unconditional 72-hour cease-fire, which was to begin at 8 a.m. Gaza time.

"This is not a time for congratulations or joy or anything except a serious determination -- a focus by everybody to try to figure out the road ahead," Kerry said in New Delhi, where he is meeting with Indian officials. "This is a respite. It is a moment of opportunity, not an end."

During the cease-fire, Kerry said, Israel will be able to continue its defense operations to destroy tunnels that are behind its territorial lines. The Palestinians will be able to receive food, medicine and humanitarian assistance, bury their dead, treat the wounded and travel to their homes. The time also will be used to make repairs to water and energy systems.

Soon after the statement was released, an official at the prime minister's office confirmed that Israel had agreed to a 72-hour truce. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the Islamic militant group also had signed on, "as long as the other party is in agreement to it."

Israeli and Palestinian delegations were expected to travel immediately to Cairo for talks aimed at reaching an end to the conflict.

The Egyptians will be the go-between for the sides and will help coordinate, a senior State Department official said speaking on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't allowed to discuss the issue publicly.

"It is up to the parties -- all of them -- to take advantage of this moment," Kerry said. "There are no guarantees. This is a difficult, complicated issue."

At least four short humanitarian cease-fires have been announced since the conflict began, but each has been broken by renewed fighting.

Hamas has said it will only end the fighting once it receives guarantees that a Gaza border blockade by Israel and Egypt -- tightened after the Islamic militant group violently seized power in Gaza in 2007 -- will be lifted.

Israel says it wants to decimate Hamas' rocket-launching capability, diminish its weapons arsenal and demolish cross-border tunnels the militants constructed to carry out attacks inside Israeli territory. It has launched more than 4,000 strikes against Hamas-linked targets, including rocket launchers and mosques where it says weapons were being stored.

Earlier, the Israeli military said it was calling up an additional 16,000 reserve soldiers to pursue its campaign against the Islamic militants.

At least 1,441 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians, since hostilities began July 8, according to Gaza health officials -- surpassing the 1,410 Palestinians reported killed in Israel's last major invasion in 2009, according to Palestinian rights groups.

Israel said 56 soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a Thai agricultural worker have died on the Israeli side. Israel reported 13 deaths in the previous campaign.

Rule breaking cited

In Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay accused both Israel and Hamas militants of violating the rules of war.

She said Hamas is violating international humanitarian law by "locating rockets within schools and hospitals or even launching these rockets from densely populated areas."

But she added that this did not absolve Israel from disregarding the same law.

The Israeli government, she said, has defied international law by attacking civilian areas of Gaza such as schools, hospitals, homes and U.N. facilities. "None of this appears to me to be accidental," Pillay said. "They appear to be defying -- deliberate defiance of -- obligations that international law imposes on Israel."

Palestinian officials said Thursday that President Mahmoud Abbas asked all Palestinian political factions, including Hamas and the smaller militant group Islamic Jihad, to give their written consent to seek war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

But in trying to make a case against Israel, Abbas could also expose Hamas, a rival turned potential political partner, to war crimes prosecution as well.

"This option is a double-edged sword," Abbas' Fatah movement wrote on its official Facebook page Thursday, saying he would only move ahead once he has the approval of Hamas.

Pillay on Thursday also took aim at the U.S., Israel's main ally, for providing financial support for Israel's Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system.

"No such protection has been provided to Gazans against the shelling," she said.

The Iron Dome system has been credited with saving countless lives as Hamas militants fired nearly 3,000 rockets at Israel since hostilities began.

At the United Nations, Israel's Ambassador Ron Prosor responded to criticism of his country, saying: "I think the international community should be very vocal in standing with Israel fighting terrorism today, because if not, you will see it on your doorstep tomorrow."

Israel expanded what started as an aerial campaign against Hamas and widened it into a ground offensive on July 17. Since then, Israel says, the campaign has concentrated on destroying the cross-border tunnels and ending rocket attacks on its cities.

Israel says most of the 32 tunnels it uncovered have now been demolished and that getting rid of the remainder will take no more than a few days.

"We have neutralized dozens of terror tunnels, and we are committed to complete this mission, with or without a cease-fire," Netanyahu said Thursday in televised remarks. "Therefore, I will not agree to any offer that does not allow the military to complete this important mission for the security of the people of Israel."

Israel says the tunnels are meant to facilitate mass attacks on civilians and soldiers inside Israel. Palestinian militants trying to sneak into Israel through the tunnels have been found with sedatives and handcuffs, an indication they were planning abductions, the military said.

Several soldiers have been killed in the current round of fighting by Palestinian gunmen who popped out of underground tunnels near Israeli communities along the Gaza border.

In response to Netanyahu's statement, Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, said: "Netanyahu is gambling with his people and pushing his army to the unknown to maintain his stature, position and allies regionally and internationally. They fooled him and pushed him to a loser's war with uncalculated consequences."

Day's casualties

Palestinians have fired more than 2,850 rockets at Israel since the fighting began -- some reaching major cities but most intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system. On Thursday alone, more than 100 rockets were fired toward Israeli cities, the army said.

One Israeli was seriously wounded when a rocket exploded in a residential area of Kiryat Gat in southern Israel, the military said. The rocket damaged a house and destroyed several cars parked on the street. Another rocket was intercepted over Tel Aviv by Israel's rocket defense system, the army said.

Israeli attacks also continued Thursday, killing at least 56 Palestinians, Gaza health officials said.

Gazans said munitions struck the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque next to a U.N. school in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. The office of the Israeli military spokesman said Palestinian snipers inside the mosque had shot at troops, wounding one Israeli soldier and prompting retaliatory fire.

The strike in Beit Lahiya damaged water tanks on the roof of a building near the mosque, sending shrapnel flying into the adjacent school compound, where dozens of Palestinians displaced by the fighting had taken shelter.

"The shrapnel from the strike on the mosque hit people who were in the street and at the entrance of the school," said Sami Salebi, an area resident.

Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 15 people were wounded in the strike, including three who were in critical condition.

Among them was Kifah Rafati, who was being treated for shrapnel injuries at the nearby Kamal Adwan Hospital.

She said she and her six children had been sleeping in a classroom inside the U.N. school when the explosion went off.

"There is no safety anywhere," the 40-year-old Rafati said.

About a quarter of a million Palestinians in Gaza are seeking shelter in 86 U.N. installations.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, warned that the population of Gaza "is facing a precipice."

"Conditions are increasingly dire in the shelters," he said. "There is no water for hygiene, very few showers, and latrines are totally inadequate. Disease outbreak is beginning with skin infections, scabies and others."

Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, had called Thursday for daily "humanitarian pauses" in the fighting to allow the delivery of aid to those in need. She said more than 80 percent of the Palestinians killed have been civilians, including 251 children.

"The reality of Gaza today is that no place is safe," Amos said, citing attacks on over 103 U.N. facilities, including one on a school Wednesday that killed 19 people and injured more than 100.

The White House said Thursday that there's little doubt Israeli artillery hit the school. A spokesman called the strike "totally unacceptable and totally indefensible."

While the U.S. says it supports Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas, officials have repeatedly called on Israel to do more to stem civilian casualties.

Israel says it is trying hard to avoid civilian casualties and blames Hamas for using civilians as "human shields." Israel has issued warnings before attacks through phone calls and text messages to residents among other methods.

Information for this article was contributed by Ian Deitch, Ibrahim Barzak, Lara Jakes, Peter Enav, Yousur Alhlou, Edith M. Lederer, Karin Laub, John Heilprin and staff members of The Associated Press and by Isabel Kershner, Fares Akram and Micahel R. Gordon of The New York Times.

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