Hamas on Sunday agreed to observe a 24-hour humanitarian truce after initially rejecting such an offer by Israel, as fighting resumed and the two sides wrangled over the terms of a lull the international community hopes can be expanded into a more sustainable truce.
Between the rival announcements Palestinian militants fired rockets deep into Israel, prompting it to resume an offensive aimed at destroying rocket launchers and cross-border attack tunnels used by Hamas.
Hours later Hamas said it would be willing to abide by a new 24-hour truce ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said the truce would go into effect at 2pm (11am GMT) on Sunday. The three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday is expected to begin Monday or Tuesday, depending on the sighting of the new moon.
Israel had offered a 24-hour truce late on Saturday, but Hamas — which has demanded the lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza as well as the release of Palestinian prisoners — rejected it.
Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesperson, did not say if Israel would hold its fire during the time requested by Hamas, but said troops would continue demolishing militant tunnels.
The 20-day war has killed more than 1 050 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to Palestinian health officials. Israel has lost 43 soldiers. Two civilians and a Thai worker in Israel were killed by rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza.
The military had earlier said about a dozen rockets were fired toward Israel since midnight — without causing casualties or damage — and that as a result it would “resume its aerial, naval and ground activity in the Gaza Strip”. The Israeli military released a video showing a rocket being fired from what it said was a Gaza school.
“Once again Hamas is cynically using the people of Gaza as a human shield,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
The 12-hour lull on Saturday — agreed to by both sides following intense US and UN mediation efforts — saw Palestinians return to neighborhoods reduced to rubble and allowed medics to collect close to 150 bodies, Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.
The Israeli military says it is doing its utmost to prevent civilian casualties, including by sending evacuation warnings to residents in targeted areas, and blames Hamas for putting civilians in harm’s way.
Hamas and other militants in Gaza have fired more than 2 400 rockets at Israel since hostilities began on July 8, many deep into the Israeli heartland and toward most of the country’s major cities.
Casualties on the Israeli side have stayed relatively low thanks to Israel’s sophisticated Iron Dome aerial defence system and because residents have been vigilant about seeking shelter quickly upon hearing the air raid sirens.
Before the announcement of the holiday ceasefire, Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri had said any truce must include a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and that tens of thousands of displaced people must be allowed to return to their homes. Israel’s current terms were “not acceptable”, he said in an SMS to journalists.
Israel’s acceptance of the ceasefire extension was premised on its soldiers remaining in Gaza to destroy the more than 30 tunnels the military says it has found in the densely populated coastal strip. – Sapa-AP