WATCH: Unbowed by mounting deaths and intense international condemnation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue the fight to destroy Hamas’s tunnels. Stuart Greer reports.
NEW DELHI and JERUSALEM- Israel and Hamas have begun a humanitarian cease-fire for 72 hours, unless extended.
It began at 8 a.m. local time, but Palestinian officials say 17 Palestinians, including 10 members of one family, were killed in Israeli strikes ahead of a the cease-fire.
Health official Ashraf al-Kidra says the family members were killed in an airstrike early Friday on their home in the southern
town of Khan Younis. Gaza police report Palestinian officials say 17 Palestinians, including 10 members of one family, were killed in Israeli strikes.
More than 1,450 Palestinians have been killed since July 8, officials say. Israel lost 61 soldiers and three civilians.ed heavy Israeli tank shelling in northern and eastern Gaza.
In a joint statement, the U.S. and UN said they had gotten assurances that all parties to the conflict had agreed to an unconditional cease-fire during which there would be negotiations on a more durable truce.
The statement said the cease-fire was critical to give civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence. During this period, civilians in Gaza will receive humanitarian relief and have time to bury the dead, take care of the injured and restock food supplies. The time also will be used to repair water and energy infrastructure.
The statement was released in New Delhi, where Secretary of State John Kerry is now meeting with Indian officials.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier Thursday the military will destroy Hamas’ tunnel network in the Gaza Strip designed for deadly attacks inside Israel, “with or without a cease-fire,” as the military called up another 16,000 reservists to pursue its campaign against Palestinian militants in the densely-populated territory.
Netanyahu’s warning came as international organizations raised concern over the mounting death toll. More than 1,422 Palestinians have been killed so far, including many civilians, according to Gaza health officials.
Israel says that most of the 32 tunnels it has uncovered have now been demolished and that getting rid of the remainder will take no more than a few days.
As the death toll rises, President Mahmoud Abbas asked all Palestinian political factions, including Hamas and the smaller group Islamic Jihad, to give their written consent to to press war crimes charges against Israel, according to Palestinian officials. Different Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) factions signed up in a meeting in the West Bank earlier this week, while Abbas is still waiting for a response from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, they said.
“This option is a double-edged sword,” Abbas’ Fatah movement wrote on its official Facebook page Thursday, saying he would only move ahead once he has the approval of Hamas.
Top UN rights officials have already accused both sides of committing war crimes, and UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos called for daily “humanitarian pauses” until a long-term cease-fire is reached.
Amos told the Security Council over 80 per cent of the more than 1,300 Palestinians killed were civilians, including 251 children. She said more than 103 UN facilities have been attacked and the fighting has made aid delivery difficult, noting 80 per cent of the population relied on UN assistance even before the conflict.
“Until a longer-term cease-fire is agreed, we need more humanitarian pauses to enable us to reach those in need,” she said.
“Pauses must be daily, predictable, and adequate in length so that humanitarian staff can dispatch relief to those in need, rescue the injured, recover the dead and allow civilians some reprieve so that they can restock and resupply their homes.”
The UN Security Council expressed “great disappointment” that its call Monday for “an immediate and unconditional humanitarian cease-fire” has not been heeded, and reiterated “in the strongest terms” its demand for implementation.
The council issued “press elements” – its lowest form of response – after hearing briefings from Amos and Pierre Krahenbuhl, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, who warned that the population of Gaza “is facing a precipice.”
The new reserve call-up follows another day of heavy fighting, in which tank shells struck a UN school where Palestinians were taking shelter and an airstrike tore through a crowded Gaza shopping area.
WATCH: UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness broke down in tears while filming an Al-Jazeera interview on July 30, after a UN school was shelled.
An Israeli defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss the matter with media, said the purpose of the latest call-up was to provide relief for troops currently on the Gaza firing line. Thursday’s call-ups were rotations, leaving the overall number of mobilized Israeli reservists at around 70,000, according to a military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
However, Israeli officials have also said they do not rule out broadening operations in the coming days.
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Palestinians have fired over 2,850 rockets at Israel – some reaching major cities but many intercepted by the Iron Dome defence system – and carried out deadly attacks through tunnels beneath the heavily guarded frontier.
One Israeli was seriously wounded Thursday when a Palestinian rocket exploded in a residential area of Kiryat Gat, the military said. The rocket damaged a house and destroyed several cars parked on the street. Another rocket was intercepted over Tel Aviv by Israel’s rocket defence system, the military said.
Watch below: IDF releases video purporting to show Hamas firing from civilian area inside Gaza
Israeli attacks in the strip continued Thursday, killing 43 people in the strip.
Gazans said munitions struck the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque next to a UN school in the northern town of Beit Lahiya. The office of the military spokesman said Palestinian snipers inside the mosque had shot at troops, wounding one Israeli soldier and prompting retaliatory fire. Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 15 people were wounded, with three of them in critical condition.
UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness told Global News that out of about 100 UN school buildings, the agency is currently using 86 to shelter the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians fleeing the violence. Gunness said 92 had been “pre-identified as possible shelters for displaced people in case we needed them.”
The strike in Beit Lahiya early Thursday damaged water tanks on the roof of a building near the mosque, sending shrapnel flying into the adjacent school compound, where dozens of Palestinians displaced by the fighting had taken shelter.
Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 15 people were wounded, with three of them in critical condition.
Kifah Rafati, 40, was being treated for shrapnel injuries at the nearby Kamal Adwan Hospital. She said she and her six children had been sleeping in a classroom facing the mosque when the explosion went off.
“There is no safety anywhere,” she said.
READ MORE: Harper continues to take hard line on Gaza
Hamas has said it will only halt fire once it receives guarantees that a Gaza border blockade by Israel and Egypt — tightened after the Islamic militant group seized power in Gaza in 2007 — will be lifted.
Israel says it wants to decimate Hamas’ rocket-launching capability, diminish its weapons arsenal and demolish the tunnels. It has launched more than 4,000 strikes against Hamas-linked targets, including rocket launchers and mosques where it says weapons were being stored.
Israeli strikes have also hit dozens of homes. Mahmoud Abu Rahma of the Palestinian human rights group Al Mezan said nearly half of the Palestinians killed so far died in their homes.
Israeli officials have said Hamas uses Gaza’s civilians as human shields by firing rockets from crowded neighbourhoods. Palestinian militants have fired more than 2,600 rockets at Israel over the past three weeks.
However, Pierre Kraehenbuehl, chief of the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees, said Israel must try harder to ensure that civilians are not hurt, especially in Gaza, where 1.7 million people are squeezed into a small coastal territory. His agency has opened 86 of its schools to more than 200,000 Palestinians fleeing the violence.
“What maybe the world forgets … is that the people of Gaza have nowhere to go," he said.
“So when the fighting starts and they move, it is not as if they can cross a border to somewhere.”
Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, called Wednesday’s deaths at the UN school “tragic,” but blamed “Hamas’s criminal entrenchment within civilian populations and its frenzy to wage war within civilian establishments.”
He noted that Kraehenbuehl’s UN agency has issued three statements about finding weapons in empty schools, presumably stashed there by militants.
Kraehenbuehl said UNRWA is overwhelmed trying to help more than 220,000 people who have fled to UN facilities seeking safety—four times higher than the peak number of displaced people in the last Gaza conflict in 2008-09.
“Conditions are increasingly dire in the shelters,” he said.
“There is no water for hygiene, very few showers, and latrines are totally inadequate. Disease outbreak is beginning with skin infections, scabies and others.”
Krahenbuhl warned that if further large-scale displacements of people occur in Gaza, Israel as the occupying power “will have to assume direct responsibility to assist these people.”
Both Amos and Krahenbuhl called for an end to the violence and the root causes of the conflict to be addressed.
“A cease-fire, while immediately required, is not enough,” Krahenbuhl said. "Notwithstanding Israel's legitimate security concerns, the illegal blockade of Gaza must be lifted."
He warned that Gaza will become “unlivable” for its 1.8 million inhabitants in a few years unless urgent steps are taken by the international community to enable the development of Gaza and ensure security in the region.
Barzak reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writers Peter Enav and Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem, John Heilprin from Geneva, Karin Laub and Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report.
With files from Global News
© The Canadian Press, 2014