Hamas on Sunday agreed to observe a 24-hour truce in Gaza after initially rejecting a similar Israeli offer, as fighting resumed and the two sides wrangled over the terms of a lull that international diplomats had hoped could be expanded into a more sustainable truce.
After Israel announced a 24-hour truce late Saturday, 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, the Islamic militant group ruling the coastal strip.
But hours after the renewal of hostilities Hamas said it would be willing to abide by a new 24-hour humanitarian truce ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday is expected to begin Monday or Tuesday, depending on the sighting of the new moon.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the truce would go into effect at 2 p.m. local time Sunday. But shortly after the truce was to have started warning sirens wailed in southern Israel and the military said three rockets landed in the area, without causing casualties or damage.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, did not say if Israel would hold its fire during the time requested by Hamas, but said troops would continue demolishing militant tunnels — the central goal of the Israeli ground operation in Gaza.
Families in Gaza would ordinarily be busy now with preparations for the holiday, with children getting new clothes, shoes and haircuts, and families visiting each other.
In the outdoor market of the Jebaliya refugee camp, vendors set up stands with clothes and shoes, but said business was slow. Hamed Abul Atta, 22, a shoe salesman, said he hadn’t made a single sale in the first three hours after opening.
Abul Atta said he had opened the shop Sunday to get away from the crowded apartment where he and his family were staying with relatives after fleeing an area of heavy fighting, the Shijaiyah district in Gaza City.
He said his family house in Shijaiyah was badly damaged and that a cousin and three other relatives were among dozens of people killed in heavy fighting there last week.
“We can’t feel any joy right now,” he said when asked if he would mark the holiday in some way.
Israel had offered a 24-hour truce late 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.
The 20-day war has killed more than 1,060 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to Palestinian health officials. Israel has lost 43 soldiers, while two Israeli 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.
“The military is aiming its fire at terror sites, but if citizens are accidently harmed Hamas is responsible for this since it once again violated an offer for a humanitarian lull that Israel accepted.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
The 12-hour lull on Saturday — agreed to by both sides following intense U.S. and U.N. mediation efforts — saw Palestinians return to neighbourhoods 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.
More than 160,000 displaced Palestinians have sought shelter at dozens of U.N. schools, an eight-fold increase since the start of Israel’s ground operation more than a week ago, the U.N. said.
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.
Israeli airstrikes have destroyed hundreds of homes, including close to 500 in direct hits, according to Palestinian rights groups, Entire Gaza neighbourhoods near the border have been reduced to rubble.
Before the announcement of the holiday cease-fire, Hamas spokesman 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 acceptance of the cease-fire extension was premised on its soldiers remaining in Gaza to destroy the more than 30 tunnels the military says it has found. Hamas has said it will not halt fire until it wins guarantees that the border blockade, tightened by Israel and Egypt after it seized the territory in 2007, will be lifted.
Any new border arrangements for Gaza would likely give a role to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who reached a power-sharing deal earlier this year with Hamas that was harshly condemned by Israel.
Egypt wants forces loyal to Abbas to be posted on the Gaza side of the border before considering opening its Rafah crossing.
Hamas officials have said they do not oppose such an arrangement, but would not surrender control over the group’s thousands-strong security forces, meaning it would remain the de facto power in Gaza.
Israeli police meanwhile said security forces prevented a major attack when they stopped a suspicious vehicle in the West Bank and discovered a large explosive inside. Police said the suspect was a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Ramallah in his 30s.
The West Bank remained calm in the early days of the Gaza conflict but in recent days has seen growing protests and clashes between stone-throwers and Israeli security forces. Nine Palestinians have been killed there.
In Gaza, the local Red Cross office said its building in Khan Younis was attacked by a “crowd of angry people.”
Witnesses said the crowd that stormed the building had lost family members during the fighting and were angry over what they said was a lack of support by emergency services.
Nadia Dibsy, an ICRC spokeswoman in Jerusalem, said there were no immediate reports of injuries, but that the reception area and office materials sustained damage from a small fire.
“We definitely deplore this kind of incident, which we take quite seriously. It’s an obstruction of the work and efforts we’ve been doing since the beginning of this conflict,” said Dibsy. “We are doing the best we can, we are asking people not to take their anger out on us.”
Aron Heller reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Gaza City and Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem contributed to this report.