Fighting in Gaza abates, but truce hopes look fragile
Hamas: We cannot co-exist with occupiers
Over 1,030 Palestinians killed in Gaza since July 8
Obama tells Netanyahu immediate cease-fire needed
GAZA/JERUSALEM: Fighting subsided in Gaza on Sunday after the Hamas movement said they backed a 24-hour humanitarian truce and US President Barack Obama called for a cease-fire but there was no sign of any comprehensive deal to end fighting with Israel.
Hamas said it had endorsed a call by the United Nations for a pause in the fighting in light of the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, which begins on Monday.
Some firing of rockets continued after the time that Hamas had announced it would put its guns aside and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu questioned the validity of the truce.
On the other hand, Israel resumed its punishing air strikes and artillery guns also fired barrages into the Gaza Strip, as reported by Israeli media, although the objects of the fire was initially unclear.
Palestinian medics said the barrage killed 11 people across the territory, including an elderly Christian woman. Another three people also succumbed to their wounds, raising the Palestinian toll on day 20 of Israel’s devastating military campaign to 1,031, Gaza’s emergency services said.
Israel says 43 of its soldiers have died, along with three civilians killed by rocket and mortar fire out of the Mediterranean enclave.
Obama spoke by phone on Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and stressed the need for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza, the White House said.
Urging a permanent end to hostilities on the basis of the 2012 cease-fire agreement, Obama added that “ultimately, any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza.”
“Hamas doesn’t even accept its own cease-fire, it’s continuing to fire at us as we speak,” Netanyahu said in an interview with CNN, adding that Israel would “take whatever action is necessary to protect our people.”
Nonetheless, Gaza Strip residents and Reuters witnesses said Israeli shelling and Hamas missile launches had slowly subsided through the afternoon, suggesting a de facto truce might be taking shape as international efforts to broker a permanent cease-fire appeared to flounder.
However, Israel’s military has said it will need more time to destroy a warren of tunnels criss-crossing the Gaza border that it says is one of its main objectives.
Egypt had also destroyed 13 tunnels which crossed into its territory, an Egyptian general said on his Facebook page. It was “a continuation of the efforts by the armed forces in protecting the borders of the state from smugglers and terrorists,” Brig. Gen. Mohamed Samir Abdulaziz Ghoneim said.
Israel and the Hamas rulers who control Gaza had agreed to a 12-hour cease-fire on Saturday to allow Palestinians to stock up on supplies and retrieve bodies from under the rubble.
Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to extend the truce until midnight on Sunday at the request of the United Nations, but called it off when Hamas launched rockets into Israel during the morning.
Hamas: We’re only resisting occupiers
Hamas also blamed Israel for not responding to the movement’s agreement to halt fire from 1100 GMT in response to a request from the United Nations.
Responding to criticisms over his group’s reluctance to accept a longer truce, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said it is Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian lands that is to blame.
He said his group could not coexist with Israel as long as it occupied Palestinian land. “We are not actually fighting the Jews because they are Jews,” he said. “We fight the occupiers.”
“I’m ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians and the Arabs and non-Arabs. However, I do not coexist with the occupiers.”
Saturday’s relative calm was a distant memory by Sunday.
“I was praying at church when my father called me and told me to go home quickly,” said Antonio Ayyad, a Christian whose elderly mother was killed when a missile hit their home in western Gaza City. “They are targeting Christians in Gaza,” he said.
“I’m not Hamas, I’m not Fatah — I don’t belong to any Palestinian faction. Where is the world? Where is the pope?” he asked.
In Rome, Pope Francis pleaded for an end to the bloodshed. “Stop, please stop! I beg you with all my heart,” he said in the weekly Angelus prayer.
Israel launched its Gaza offensive on July 8, saying its aim was to halt rocket attacks by Hamas and its allies.
After aerial and naval bombardment failed to quell the outgunned guerrillas, Israel poured ground forces into the Gaza Strip 10 days later, looking to knock out Hamas’s rocket stores and destroy the vast network of tunnels.
The army says its drive to find and eliminate tunnels would continue through any temporary truce.
A poll published by Israel’s Channel 10 television said some 87 percent of respondents wanted Israel to continue the operation until Hamas was toppled.
Diplomatic efforts led by US Secretary of State John Kerry to end the conflict have shown little sign of progress. Israel and Hamas have set conditions that appear irreconcilable.
Hamas wants an end to the Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade of Gaza before agreeing to halt hostilities. Israel has signalled it could make concessions toward that end, but only if Gaza’s militant groups are stripped of their weapons.
“Hamas must be permanently stripped of its missiles and tunnels in a supervised manner,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said, “In return we will agree to a host of economic alleviations,” the security cabinet member said on Facebook.
Kerry flew back to Washington overnight after spending most of the week in Egypt trying to bridge the divide, putting forward some written proposals to Israel on Friday.
Speaking off the record, cabinet ministers described his plan as “a disaster,” saying it met all Hamas demands, such as lifting the Israeli-Egyptian blockade completely and ignored Israeli terms, such as stripping Hamas of its rockets.
There was no immediate comment from US officials.
The obvious rancour added yet another difficult chapter to the already strained relations between Netanyahu and Kerry, whose energetic drive to broker a definitive peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians ended in acrimony in April.
The main UN agency in Gaza, UNRWA, said 167,269 displaced Palestinians have taken shelter in its schools and buildings, following repeated calls by Israel for civilians to evacuate whole neighborhoods ahead of military operations.
But in southern Gaza, residents of villages near the town of Khan Younes attacked the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, torching furniture and causing damage, saying the organization had not done enough to help them.
During the lull in fighting inside Gaza on Saturday, residents flooded into the streets to discover scenes of massive destruction in some areas, including Beit Hanoun in the north and Shejaia in the east.
An Israeli official said the army hoped the widespread desolation would persuade Gazans to put pressure on Hamas to stop the fighting for fear of yet more devastation.
The Israeli military says its forces have uncovered more than 30 tunnels in Gaza, with some of the burrows reaching into Israeli territory and designed to launch surprise attacks on Jewish communities along the border.
The military said on Sunday it found a tunnel that led directly into the dining room of an Israeli kibbutz.
Other underground passages, the military says, serve as weapons caches and Hamas bunkers. One official said troops had found it easier to operate during the truce as the immediate threat to their safety was diminished.
The Gaza turmoil has stoked tensions amongst Palestinians in mainly Arab East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
Medics said eight Palestinians were killed on Friday in incidents near the West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron — the sort of death toll reminiscent of previous uprisings against Israel’s prolonged military rule there.
The violence has sparked protests outside the region.
Demonstrators in London marched from the Israeli embassy to the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall, blocking traffic throughout the West End. French police clashed with pro-Palestinian protesters who defied a ban by authorities to march in central Paris.