Israel and Hamas have agreed to a 72-hour ceasefire in their conflict in the Gaza Strip starting on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday.
The ceasefire will begin at 8 a.m. local time on Friday, Aug. 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.
U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry has received assurances that all parties have agreed to the humanitarian ceasefire, the statement said.
"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."
Israeli and Palestinian delegations will immediately travel to Cairo for negotiations with the Egyptian government to reach a durable ceasefire, the statement said.
Earlier Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing international alarm over a rising civilian death toll in Gaza, said he would not accept any ceasefire that stopped Israel completing the destruction of militants' infiltration tunnels.
The Israeli military estimated on Wednesday that accomplishing that task, already into its fourth week, would take several more days.
"We are determined to complete this mission, with or without a ceasefire," Netanyahu said in public remarks at the start of a meeting of his full cabinet in Tel Aviv.
"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."
Leaving open the option of widening a ground campaign in the Hamas Islamist-dominated Gaza Strip, the Israeli military said it had called up an additional 16,000 reservists. A military source said they would relieve a similar number of reserve soldiers being stood down.
Netanyahu's security cabinet on Wednesday approved continuing operations launched on July 8 in response to a surge of cross-border rocket attacks. Israel also sent a delegation to Egypt, which has been trying, with U.S. blessing, to broker a ceasefire.
Washington has also, however, allowed Israel to tap a local U.S. arms stockpile in the past few weeks to replenish its grenades and mortar rounds, a U.S. defence official said on Thursday.
Gaza officials say at least 1,372 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in the battered territory and nearly 7,000 wounded. Fifty-six Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza clashes and more than 400 wounded. Three civilians have been killed by Palestinian shelling in Israel.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned on Wednesday the deaths of at least 15 Palestinians among thousands sheltering at a U.N.-run school. The United Nations said its initial assessment was that Israeli artillery shells hit the facility.
"It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice," Ban said.
The shelling of the U.N. facility is "totally unacceptable and totally indefensible," a White House spokesman said on Thursday.
"The shelling of a U.N. facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
Israel said its forces were attacked by guerrillas near the school, in northern Jabalya, and had fired back. In another incident on Wednesday, 17 people were killed in nearby Shejaia by what Palestinian officials said was Israeli shelling of a produce market. The Israeli military said it was investigating.
"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. The Israelis have kept casualties from the salvoes low, using its Iron Dome air defence system to intercept them and air-raid sirens to send people to shelters.
In the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya on Wednesday, Israeli tank shells landed near another U.N.-run school and at least 30 people sheltering inside were wounded by shrapnel and shattered glass, witnesses and hospital officials said.
Rolling Israeli ground assaults on residential areas, preceded by mass warnings to evacuate, have displaced more than 200,000 of Gaza's 1.8 million Palestinians. The tiny territory's infrastructure is in ruins, with power and water outages.
Israel says it is trying to avoid civilian casualties and blames these on Hamas and other Palestinian factions dug in for urban combat.
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 view the Palestinian Islamists as a security threat.
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.
Diplomacy to end the Gaza conflict is 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.
Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defence official involved in talks with Cairo, said Egypt wanted the fighting to stop before any wider negotiations on a long-term arrangement to prevent future flare-ups.
"The Egyptians don't want to discuss anything with anyone while violence and terror continue," he told Israel Radio.
In the absence of a deal, Israel has ordered its ground forces to focus on locating and destroying a warren of tunnels through which Hamas has menaced its southern towns and army bases.
"Progress has been satisfactory, and we are completing our treatment of the terror tunnels," Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Thursday. "During the fighting, soldiers are finding new tunnel shafts, and they are also being neutralised."
Three Israeli soldiers were killed on Wednesday by a booby trap detonated as they uncovered a tunnel shaft, the army said. Military losses are more than five times those from the last Gaza ground war, in 2008-2009, but Israeli opinion polls show strong public support for fighting on until Hamas is quelled.
Netanyahu faces intense pressure from abroad to stand his forces down. The United States and the U.N. 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.
On Wednesday, the White House voiced worry at the deaths in Jabalya and other U.N.-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 U.N.-designated shelters in Gaza," said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
The U.N. in Gaza is struggling to withstand a flood of almost a quarter of a million refugees into shelters that have repeatedly come under Israeli fire.
Out of cash, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the main U.N. body in the impoverished enclave of 1.8 million Palestinians, says it can barely handle the humanitarian crisis.
Asked to explain the scale of the civilian suffering to an Arab news station, an UNRWA spokesman simply burst into tears.
"There are times when tears speak more eloquently than words. Mine pale into insignificance compared with Gaza's," Chris Gunness said.
"UNRWA is overwhelmed in Gaza. We have reached breaking point; our staff are being killed, our shelters overflowing. Where will it end ... UNRWA now has 225,178 displaced in 86 shelters. But Gaza is being destroyed. So when the war is over, where will these people go?" Gunness said.
At dawn on Wednesday, Israeli forces shelled a girls' school doubling as a refuge for more than 3,000 people, killing at least 15, including four children, the Gaza Health Ministry said.
Eight U.N. employees have been killed since Israel launched its offensive on July 8 after rocket fire from Gaza intensified. U.N. shelters have been bombed by Israel on six separate occasions, including in another shelling of a U.N. shelter last week that killed 15 people.
Israel said its forces had come under fire from the vicinity of the school on Wednesday and responded. It denies targeting civilians and says militants use innocents as human shields and their neighborhoods as firing positions.
Gaza officials say more than 1,370 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in the battered enclave. Israel says 56 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed.
Even in peacetime, the U.N. was under strain to provide food aid to a million Gaza residents, over half the total population.
UNRWA made an urgent appeal for $187 million on Thursday to buy beds and basic supplies for those who fled and to stem the rise of diseases in shelters.
Insecticide and medicine were urgently needed for refugees in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, the U.N.'s humanitarian affairs department said, "to treat epidemics such as lice and scabies, which started to spread in shelters".
Clean water, food and drugs are in short supply and being delivered to refugee families, and the U.N. said hundreds of thousands of traumatized children would need urgent psychiatric help.
School turned camp
The central courtyard of a U.N. school in the city of Gaza has become a teeming refugee camp housing desperate and scared families.
Hundreds of unwashed bodies rendered the air stale. Restless kids played with dolls and kicked around a soccer ball improvised out of a piece of leather. Anxious adults lay in the shade of corridors or cramped classrooms, filled with anxiety.
Samir Al-Tumi, 60, said he and his family were planning to leave and take their chances in their home neighborhood of Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza strip, despite ongoing battles there and Israeli army warnings for locals to leave.
"I feel I would be safer outside the UNRWA school ... I prefer to take my family and return to my house and die there instead of dying here," he said.
Tumi echoed the sentiments of many refugees there when he said he believed world powers had failed them and had allowed innocent people to be killed.
"I urge the United Nations Security Council, be merciful to our children, not to us - we are adults and maybe we have done mistakes in our life - but what about those children, what could they be guilty of?" he said.
The U.N. has urged the immediate conclusion of so-far fruitless regional talks for a ceasefire and suggested the mass deaths at its facilities were cause for Israel to be investigated for the attacks on its schools.
"We have moved beyond what humanitarian action alone can deal with. This is now the time for political action. It is the time for accountability," UNRWA's chief Pierre Krähenbühl told reporters in Gaza's main hospital on Thursday.
"The attack on the Jabalya school ... is probably one of the most tragic protection failures that the international community has witnessed," he added.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun