WATCH: There seemed to be at least a chance at a ceasefire on Friday, but that didn’t happen once again. Israel not only rejected the latest ceasefire plan, but the government told soldiers to prepare for expanded operations in the Gaza Strip. Eric Sorensen reports.
JERUSALEM and TORONTO – Israel-Hamas fighting looked headed for escalation after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry failed Friday to broker a weeklong truce as a first step toward a broader deal and Israel’s defence minister warned Israel might soon expand its Gaza ground operation “significantly.”
Hours after the U.S.-led efforts stalled, the two sides agreed to a 12-hour humanitarian cease-fire to begin Saturday. However, the temporary lull was unlikely to change the trajectory of the current hostilities amid ominous signs that the Gaza war is spilling over into the West Bank.
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In a “Day of Rage,” Palestinians across the territory, which had been relatively calm for years, staged protests against Israel’s Gaza operation and the rising casualty toll there. In the West Bank, at least six Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, hospital officials said.
The latest diplomatic setbacks, after several days of high-level diplomacy in the region, signalled that both sides are digging in and that the fighting in Gaza is likely to drag on.
Israel wants more time to destroy Hamas military tunnels and rocket launching sites in Gaza, while the territory’s Hamas rulers want international guarantees that a Gaza border blockade will be lifted before they cease fire.
The Israeli military said in a statement that Saturday’s 12-hour pause in fighting would start at 8 a.m. But it warned that the military “shall respond if terrorists choose to exploit” the lull to attack Israeli troops “or fire at Israeli civilians.” The military also said that “operational activities to locate and neutralize tunnels in the Gaza Strip will continue.”
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said earlier Friday that the group had agreed to the 12-hour lull, intended to allow civilians to receive aid and evacuate to safer areas.
Israel TV reported that on Friday evening, Israel’s Security Cabinet – which groups top ministers on security issues – rejected Kerry’s earlier proposal in its current form, mainly because it would mean Israel has to cut short an ongoing effort to destroy Hamas military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border.
Kerry denied a formal proposal was submitted to Israel for a vote, but acknowledged “they may have rejected some language within the proposal.” He didn’t elaborate on which proposal he was referring to.
Soon after, Israel’s defence minister issued a statement that Israel may soon significantly broaden its ground operation in the Gaza Strip.
“You need to be ready for the possibility that very soon we will instruct the military to significantly broaden the ground operation in Gaza,” Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon is quoted as saying in a statement issued by his office.
“In Israel, millions of people are living under constant threat of Hamas rocket fire and tunnel attacks,” said Kerry at a Cairo press conference Friday afternoon. “In Gaza, hundreds of Palestinians have died over the past few weeks including a tragic number of civilians.”
“Both the Israelis and the Palestinians deserve and need to lead normal lives.”
Kerry said he and colleagues UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Arab League President Nabil Elaraby and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri are working towards a seven-day humanitarian cease-fire, the basic structure of which was built on “the Egyptian initiative” which involved bringing representatives from all sides to Cairo for negotiations.
He was unable to announce it had been accepted because they still have “some terminology and the context of the framework to work through,” said Kerry.“But we’re confident we have a fundamental framework that will ultimately work.”
Kerry said Ban proposed a 12-hour cease-fire, which he said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to as a “down payment.”
“We hope the down payment of a ceasefire with the possibility of an extension…will be a real possibility over the course of tomorrow.”
There was no immediate Israeli government comment.
Earlier, Israeli aircraft struck 30 houses in the Gaza Strip, killing a leader of the militant Islamic Jihad group and two of his sons.
Israeli ground troops and Hamas gunmen fought intense battles in the north and centre of the territory, Palestinian officials said.
The Israeli military said it hit 45 sites in Gaza, including what it said was a Hamas military command post, while Gaza militants continued to fire rockets at Israel, with one hitting an empty house.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military said Israeli soldier Oron Shaul–who Hamas claimed to have captured on Sunday–was in fact killed in battle on that day. (An Israeli soldier in the hands of Hamas could have been a game changer in the current round of Israel-Hamas fighting and efforts to end it).
In Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinians protested in the traditionally Arab east of the city after Muslim noon prayers, and a dozen protesters threw rocks and fireworks at Israeli police, who fired stun grenades and water cannons. Thousands of Israeli security forces had been deployed for possible Palestinian protests.
Palestinian hospital officials said five Palestinians were shot and killed Friday: A 21-year-old and 22-year-old in the northern village of Hawara, and three men in the southern village of Beit Omar, according to hospital officials.
An Israeli police spokesman, Mickey Rosenfeld, said paramilitary border police opened fire to disperse violent protests at Hawara, and that masked Palestinians threw firebombs. He said he was unaware of a shooting involving an Israeli civilian.
The Israeli military said it was looking into the reports of the shootings in Beit Omar.
The night before, thousands of Palestinians protesting the Gaza fighting clashed with Israeli security forces in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem in one of the biggest protests in the territory in years. One Palestinian was killed and dozens were wounded, according to Palestinian medical officials.
In Gaza, the Palestinian death toll reached 828, after 115 were killed on Thursday in one of the deadliest days of fighting, said Ashraf al-Kidra, a Palestinian health official. More than 5,200 Palestinians have been wounded since July 8, he said, and the UN says civilians make up three-fourths of the dead and a majority of the wounded.
In Israel, 38 people have been killed since July 8, including 35 soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker, said the army. Among the 35 soldiers was Sgt. Oron Shaul, whom Hamas had claimed to have captured earlier this week, but had in fact died in battle Sunday.
WATCH: Violent clashes between protesters, Israeli police in East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank Friday as funerals were held for those killed.
Early Friday, Israeli warplanes struck 30 houses throughout the Gaza Strip, including the home of Salah Hassanein, a leader of the military wing of Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in Gaza after Hamas.
Hassanein and two of his sons were killed in the strike, said Gaza police spokesman Ayman Batniji and al-Kidra. The Israeli army confirmed the strike.
Over the past two weeks, Israeli aircraft have repeatedly hit homes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. Most had gone into hiding, but the strikes killed a leader of an Islamic Jihad rocket squad, a Hamas commander and a son of senior Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya, according to the Israeli military.
Such strikes have also claimed the lives of a large number of civilians. A Gaza human rights group said earlier this week that close to 500 homes have been damaged or destroyed in direct hits from the air, and that more than 320 people have been killed in their homes as a result of military strikes.
Hamas has said it will not halt fire without international guarantees that Egypt and Israel will open Gaza’s border crossings and end their seven-year-old blockade. Israel and Egypt are reluctant to ease the blockade, fearing this will enable Hamas to tighten its grip on Gaza.
Israeli media reported that the military also wants more time to continue destroying rocket sites and tunnels from Gaza into Israel that Hamas has used to launch attacks. The military says it has found 31 tunnels but only destroyed about one-third of them so far. Israel has mobilized over 65,000 reserve forces during the fighting.
An Air Canada flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv was forced to circle Ben Gurion airport Friday due to reports of rocket fire, before it was confirmed that it was safe to land. An Air Canada flight departing Toronto to Tel Aviv Friday is still scheduled.
Air France and Germany’s two biggest airlines decided Friday to resume flights to Tel Aviv after cancelling operations for several days over safety concerns.
Germany’s Lufthansa said it would resume flights in stages starting Saturday morning. The decision also applies to its subsidiaries Germanwings, Austrian Airlines, Swiss and Brussels Airlines.
Air France said its first flight to Tel Aviv would leave Paris on Friday night.
Germany’s second-biggest carrier, Air Berlin, said that it would start flying midday Saturday.
Barzak reported from Gaza City. Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.
With files from Global News
© The Associated Press, 2014