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Israel and Hamas agree to 12-hour ceasefire Saturday

The Israeli military and Hamas, together with all militant groups in Gaza, have agreed to a 12-hour pause in hostilities.  

The temporary truce, mediated by the United Nations, will start at approximately 8 am Israeli time Saturday morning, according to Spokesman for Hamas Sami Abu Zuhri.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said that during the brief truce, troops would keep searching for tunnels used by militants and that the military will "respond if terrorists choose to exploit this time to attack Israel Defense Forces personnel or fire at Israeli civilians."

"Gaza civilians who have been requested to vacate from their residents are to refrain from returning," the Israeli spokeswoman said. 

After initially rejecting proposals for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip ealier in the day, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seeking changes to the plans, a government source said.

The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, made the comment when asked about Kerry's earlier statement on a goodwill gesture by Netanyahu at a press conference in Cairo.

Full details of the proposed truce were not released, but the government official, who declined to be named, said Israel wanted modifications before agreeing to any end to hostilities. 

France has also offered to host several foreign ministers, including those of the United States, Turkey and Qatar, in Paris on Saturday to coordinate efforts to try and enable a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, a French diplomatic source said.

"In support of initiatives currently under way, most notably Egypt's initiative, our objective is to converge all international efforts so that the conditions of a ceasefire can emerge as quickly as possible," the source said.

The meeting, which will start early on Saturday morning, will also be attended by Germany, Italy, Britain and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. 

There will not be any representatives at this stage from Israel, Hamas or the Palestinian Authority.

JOHN KERRY IN CAIRO

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday that there were still disagreements on the terminology for a Gaza truce and called for a seven-day humanitarian ceasefire for the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday next week.

"We are working toward a brief seven days of peace. Seven days of a humanitarian ceasefire in honor of Eid in order to be able to bring people together to try to work to create a more durable, sustainable ceasefire for the long (term)," Kerry told a news conference in Cairo.

Senior Hamas official Ezzat el-Rishiq who is in the group's political wing based in Cairo said on his Twitter account that the seven-day ceasefire was "under study in motion."

Another Hamas official Mohamed Nazzal told Aljazeera television that the current "initiative in this form is not acceptable at all."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, standing with Kerry at the news conference, backed the call for a pause in fighting for Eid. Ban said it could start with an extendable 12-hour stoppage.

A U.S. official said later that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Kerry that Israel will begin a 12-hour pause in Gaza hostilities starting at 7 a.m. Israeli time (0400 GMT) on Saturday. The Israeli government did not immediately comment on the report. The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, made the comment when asked about Kerry's statement that Netanyahu had inferred to him that Israel was willing to undertake a 12-hour pause in the fighting as a goodwill gesture. "Prime Minister Netanyahu has indicated his willingness to do that as a good face down payment and to move forward," Kerry said. 

He also said that "serious progress" had been made on a truce but there was more work to do.

Israel may have rejected some language in a truce proposal draft, but there "was no formal proposal, or final proposal, or proposal ready (for) a vote submitted to Israel," Kerry said.

"We still have some terminology ... to work through, but we are confident that we have a fundamental framework that can and will ultimately work," Kerry said.

SCHOOL SHELLED

The urgency was spurred on Thursday by the killing of 15 people as they sheltered at a U.N.-run school in the northern Gaza Strip, which local officials blamed on Israeli shelling.

An UNRWA spokesman said the agency had tried in vain to arrange with Israel for an evacuation of civilians from the school in northern Beit Hanoun before it was shelled.

Scores of crying families who had been living in the school ran with their children to a hospital a few hundred meters away where the victims were being treated. Laila Al-Shinbari, a woman who was at the school when it was hit, told Reuters that families had gathered in the courtyard expecting to be evacuated shortly in a Red Cross convoy.

"All of us sat in one place when suddenly four shells landed on our heads ... Bodies were on the ground, (there was) blood and screams. My son is dead, and all my relatives are wounded, including my other kids," she said, weeping.

Israel said its forces had come under attack from Palestinian guerrillas in the area of the school and that they had shot back. It accused Hamas of preventing any evacuation.

WEST BANK

In the occupied West Bank, where U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas governs in uneasy coordination with Israel, some 10,000 demonstrators marched in solidarity with Gaza overnight - a scale recalling mass revolts of past decades once recorded in now yellowing newsprint. 

Protesters surged against an Israeli army checkpoint, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, and Palestinian medics said one was shot dead and 200 wounded when troops opened fire.

On Friday, Israeli paramilitary police went on high alert for flare-ups at Jerusalem's most important mosque during prayers for the final stretch of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer. The upcoming occasion lends symbolic weight to a proposed short-term halt to hostilities and feasting and celebration traditionally follows the end of fasting. 

But Friday, the main Muslim prayer day of the week, is also a traditional flashpoint for protests, and the Palestinian Fatah movement called for a “day of rage” in solidarity with those suffering in Gaza.

Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel's police minister and a member of the security cabinet, said he was shuttling between consultations on how to contain the rising hostilities.

"We have had a very difficult night," he told Israel's Army Radio. "I hope we can get through today all right."

TUNNELS, ROCKETS

Israel has lost 32 soldiers in a Gaza ground advance it says aims to destroy dozens of cross-border infiltration tunnels used by Hamas to threaten its southern villages and army bases.

Three civilians have been killed in Israel by rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza - the kind of shelling that surged last month amid Hamas anger at a crackdown on its activists in the West Bank, prompting the July 8 launch of the Israeli offensive.

A flurry of long-range rocket launches on Friday set off sirens around Israel's commercial capital of Tel Aviv, where witnesses reported several interceptions by the Iron Dome air defense system. A building was hit in the southern coastal town of Ashkelon but there were no casualties.

An Israeli official briefed on security cabinet discussions envisaged an initial seven-day halt to the fighting during which the army would keep digging up tunnels on Gaza's eastern frontier.

"First Israel wants to hear Hamas's response to the (Kerry) proposals," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Netanyahu has said any truce should lead to the eventual stripping of Gaza's rocket arsenals - something Hamas rules out.

The rockets have sent Israelis regularly rushing to shelters and dented the economy despite Iron Dome's high rate of success.

A Hamas rocket intercepted near Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday prompted the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to halt American commercial flights to Israel's main international gateway. Some European carriers followed suit.

Jolted by the blow at the height of an already stagnant summer tourism season, Israel persuaded U.S. authorities to lift the flight ban on Thursday, after which the European aviation regulator removed its own advisory against flying to Ben Gurion.

TRUCE TALKS

Hamas, like Israel, was biding its time in the truce talks.

"There is nothing new yet regarding the efforts to achieve calm," group spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said on Friday.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal had on Wednesday voiced support for a humanitarian truce, but only if Israel eased restrictions on Gaza's 1.8 million people.

Hamas wants Egypt to open up its border with Gaza, too, and has demanded that Israel release hundreds of prisoners rounded up in the West Bank last month following the kidnap and killing of three Jewish seminary students.

Such concessions appear unlikely, however, as both Israel and Egypt consider Hamas a security threat.

One Cairo official said next week's Eid al-Fitr festival, which concludes Ramadan, was a possible date for a truce. But U.S. officials were circumspect on progress made by Kerry, whose mediation has involved Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Abbas, as Washington, like Israel, won't deal directly with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group.

"Secretary Kerry has been on the phone all morning, and he will remain in close touch with leaders in the region over the course of the morning as he continues work on achieving a ceasefire," said a senior U.S. State Department official in Cairo, which has been Kerry's base over the last four days as he has tried to bring about a temporary end to the conflict.

Reuters and the Los Angeles Times contributed

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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