Israel and Hamas have agreed to a 72-hour ceasefire in their conflict in the Gaza Strip starting on Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday.
The ceasefire will begin at 8:00 am local time on Friday, August 1, they said in a joint statement. The statement said “forces on the ground will remain in place” during the truce, implying that Israeli ground forces will not withdraw.
“We urge all parties to act with restraint until this humanitarian ceasefire begins, and to fully abide by their commitments during the ceasefire,” Kerry and Ban said. “This ceasefire is critical to giving innocent civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence.”
Israel killed at least 80 people as a soaring Palestinian civilian toll triggered international alarm on the 24th day of the military assault.
A pre-dawn Israeli air strike killed a man in the central town of Deir al-Balah, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.
He said two mid-morning strikes killed three more, one in the southern city of Rafah and another two in Deir al-Balah.
A strike in the southern city of Khan Younis killed another three people, Qudra said.
Another three people, including a local journalist, died of injuries sustained in earlier attacks, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.
At least 15 Palestinians sheltering in the UNRWA school were injured in an air strike on a neighboring mosque on Thursday, a day after a strike on the school killed 19. Two wounded on Thursday were in a serious condition.
Gaza officials say at least 1,437 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians, have been killed in the battered enclave and nearly 8,265 wounded, 350 of which on Thursday alone.
At least 111 Palestinians were killed Wednesday, one of the bloodiest days of the Israeli assault on Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet on Wednesday approved continuing the assault launched on July 8.
The Israeli army will continue its work to destroy tunnels used by Palestinian fighters for cross-border attacks with or without a ceasefire, Netanyahu said on Thursday.
“Until now, we have destroyed dozens of terror tunnels and we are determined to finish this mission — with or without a ceasefire,” he said in a live address at the start of a cabinet meeting.
“I wont agree to any proposal that will not enable the Israeli military to finish this important task, for the sake of Israel’s security,” he added.
Despite the bellicose statements, Israel has nevertheless, sent a delegation to Egypt, which has been trying, with Washington’s blessing, to broker a ceasefire.
Meanwhile, a military source said some 16,000 reservists were being called up at short notice in the coming hours to replace a similar number who would be stood down.
“The army has issued 16,000 additional mobilization orders to allow troops on the ground to rest, which takes the total number of reservists to 86,000,” an army spokeswoman said.
Israel does not say how many troops are currently engaged in the fighting inside the Gaza Strip.
The UN Security Council on Thursday called for humanitarian pauses in Gaza and renewed its appeal for an immediate ceasefire.
The Council expressed “grave disappointment” that repeated appeals for an end to the fighting had not been heeded.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was incensed on Wednesday at the deaths of at least 19 Palestinians among thousands sheltering at a school whose UN administrator said appeared to have been hit by Israeli artillery.
“It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice,” Ban said.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay slammed Israel for its attacks on homes, schools and hospitals, accusing it of “deliberate defiance” of international law.
“None of this appears to me to be accidental,” she told reporters.
“There appears to be deliberate defiance of obligations that international law imposes on Israel.”
The attack was also denounced by the White House in a carefully worded statement that avoided mentioning Israel.
“The United States condemns the shelling of a UNRWA school in Gaza, which reportedly killed and injured innocent Palestinians, including children, and UN humanitarian workers,” a statement said.
A White House spokesman had stronger words for Israel later on Thursday, saying Israel talks frequently about the importance it places on sparing civilian lives but that the United States believes its government and military are not doing enough to that end.
“The shelling of a UN facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible,” spokesman Josh Earnest said. “We believe the Israeli government and the Israeli military need to do more to live up to the own standards that they have set for protecting innocent civilians.”
Israel claims its forces were attacked by guerrillas near the school, in northern Jabalia, and had fired back. However, UNRWA Commissioner Pierre Krahenbuhl said on Wednesday that the location of the school had been communicated to Israel 17 times.
“No words to adequately express my anger and indignation,” he wrote on his official Twitter account, describing the attack as “intolerable.”
Early Thursday, Israeli warplanes attacked a mosque near the same UN school in Jabalia, wounding 15 Palestinians, emergency services said.
Israel did not comment immediately on another Wednesday attack in nearby Shujayeh, in which Palestinian officials said 17 people were killed by Israeli shelling near a produce market.
“Such a massacre requires an earthquake-like response,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, whose group has kept up dozens of daily rocket launches deep into Israel.
Rolling Israeli ground assaults on residential areas have displaced more than 240,000 of Gaza’s 1.8 million Palestinians. The tiny territory’s infrastructure is in ruins, its only power plant completely demolished, and suffering from electricity and water outages.
Israel committed to a brief four-hour lull in fighting on Wednesday, which did not apply in places where troops were “currently operating,” hours after the army made what it called a “significant advance” into the narrow coastal strip.
Hamas denounced the lull as a publicity stunt, saying it had “no value.”
Both sides have voiced openness to a truce but their terms diverge dramatically. Israel wants Gaza stripped of infiltration tunnels and rocket stocks. Hamas rules that out, and seeks an end to a crippling Gaza blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt, which has shut its border crossing and destroyed hundreds of tunnels crucial to smuggling in construction material and medicine into Gaza since the military ouster of President Mohammed Mursi.
The negotiations are further complicated by the fact Israel and the United States shun Hamas as a terrorist group, while the go-betweens – Egypt, Qatar and Turkey – disagree on Gaza policy.
In the absence of a deal, Israel has ordered its ground forces to continue destroying a warren of tunnels through which Hamas fighters have infiltrated its southern towns and army bases.
Major General Sami Turgeman, chief of Israeli forces in Gaza, said on Wednesday they were “but a few days away from destroying all the attack tunnels.” The army said 32 of the secret passages had been found so far and half of them blown up.
Three Israeli soldiers were killed on Wednesday by a booby trap detonated as they uncovered a tunnel shaft, the army said. In total, 56 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the assault on Gaza, and more than 400 wounded. Two Israelis and one Thai citizen have been killed in Palestinian shelling in Israel.
The United States and the UN Security Council have urged an immediate, unconditional ceasefire by both sides in Gaza to allow in humanitarian relief and for further talks on a more durable cessation of hostilities.
But Israeli opinion polls show strong public support for fighting.
On Wednesday, the White House voiced worry at the deaths in Jabalia and other UN-run shelters shelled during the clashes.
“We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in UN-designated shelters in Gaza,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
Separately, the Pentagon said it had allowed Israel to stock up on grenades and mortar rounds from a US munitions store located in Israel as part of bilateral emergency preparedness arrangement.
Rights group Amnesty International had urged Washington to halt arms supplies to Israel.
“It is time for the US government to urgently suspend arms transfers to Israel and to push for a UN arms embargo on all parties to the conflict,” it said in a petition to US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Egyptian officials say they put together a revised truce plan this week that had been provisionally accepted by Israel, though Hamas was still undecided.
However, an Israeli security cabinet minister, Gilad Erdan, denied on Wednesday that his side was suing for a truce.
“We are not looking for a ceasefire, though of course military maneuvers are supposed to be followed by diplomatic maneuvers,” Erdan said. “But a ceasefire must fulfill Israel’s terms, a long-term calm and the demilitarization of Gaza.”
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper blamed Hamas for the heavy loss of civilian life caused by Israel’s assault on Gaza.
“We hold the terrorist organization Hamas responsible for this. They have initiated and continue this conflict, and continue to seek the destruction of the state of Israel,” Harper a longtime supporter of Israel, said in televised remarks.
Last week, hundreds of academics, lawyers, community activists and others criticized the Canadian government for its support of Israel in the conflict, a position they said in an open letter “discredits Canada.”
(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)