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Israel extends unilateral cease-fire as Gaza death toll tops 1,000

Gaza residents pour into the streets to recover their dead as diplomatic efforts continue

Israel on Saturday announced that it will extend its cease-fire in Gaza for 24 hours until midnight on Sunday, as thousands of Gaza residents who had fled Israel-Hamas fighting streamed back to devastated border areas during the original 12-hour truce to find large-scale destruction. They found that scores of homes were pulverized, wreckage blocked roads and power cables dangled in the streets. 

"At the request of the United Nations, the cabinet has approved a humanitarian hiatus until tomorrow (Sunday) at 24:00. The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) will act against any breach of the ceasefire," an Israeli official said in a statement.

Hamas rejected Israel's decision to extend the truce, saying Israeli tanks first had to withdraw from the territory. Despite the announced cease-fire, Israel said its troops would respond to any fire from Gaza.

Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas spokesman in Gaza, told Al Jazeera: "Any humanitarian ceasefire that doesn't include the complete withdrawal of its positions in the Gaza Strip, doesn’t enable the residents to go back to their homes and doesn’t allow the evacuation of the wounded, is unacceptable." 

The conflict, now in its 19th day, has left more than 1,000 people dead — mostly Palestinians. 

Earlier Saturday, Hamas rejected Israel's proposal for a four-hour extension of a 12-hour truce that was agreed upon by both sides. The Israeli military said that three mortar rounds had been fired at Israel from Gaza during its four-hour extension of the original cease-fire agreement. There was no immediate Israeli retaliation for the rocket fire.

As the earlier cease-fire took effect at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Gaza streets quickly filled with Palestinians trying to stock up on supplies or returning to devastated areas to inspect their homes. Ambulances of the Red Crescent reached the hardest-hit areas, including Beit Hanoun and the eastern Shujaeya district of Gaza City, to recover bodies.

Palestinian health officials said 147 bodies were pulled from the rubble throughout Gaza, many of them partially decomposed.

In the southern town of Khan Younis, 20 members of the same extended family, including at least 10 children, were killed by tank fire that hit a building on the edge of town, said Kidra. 

More than 1,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed and nearly 6,000 wounded over the past 19 days, according to Palestinian officials. Israeli strikes have also destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced tens of thousands fleeing the fighting.

The temporary cease-fire was the only apparent outcome from a high-level mediation mission by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon over the past week. They failed to broker a weeklong cease-fire as a precursor to a broader deal, as they had hoped.

Top diplomats from the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, including France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, called Saturday for an extension to the temporary truce. Israel's defense minister, however, warned Friday he might soon expand the ground operation in Gaza "significantly."

Israel, which has lost 40 soldiers and two residents, says it is trying to prevent civilian casualties, including sending evacuation warnings to residents in targeted areas. It blames Hamas for putting civilians in harm's way.

Saturday's lull appeared unlikely to change the course of the current hostilities, with both sides digging in. The Israeli military said troops would respond if Gaza gunmen violate the lull. The military also said "operational activities to locate and neutralize tunnels in the Gaza Strip will continue." 

"At the end of the operation, Hamas will have to think very hard if it is worth it to taunt us in the future," Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Friday.

Hamas, in turn, is unwilling to halt fire until it receives international assurances that Gaza's seven-year-old border blockade will be lifted. Israel and Egypt tightened the blockade after Hamas seized Gaza in 2007. 

The Israeli government has also suggested that Gaza be demilitarized as a condition for a permanent cease-fire. The current war is the third in Gaza in just over five years.

Gaza fighters have fired close to 2,500 rockets at Israel since July 8, exposing most of Israel's population to an indiscriminate threat. Israel's Iron Dome defense system intercepts some of those rockets, while early-warning systems provide notice for incoming rockets. The Palestinians lack such sophisticated systesms, and shelters are scarce. 

In Beit Hanoun on Saturday, the streets were filled at midmorning with frantic residents, many of whom had walked several miles from temporary shelters to inspect the damage to their homes and retrieve belongings. Ambulances with wailing sirens and donkey carts loaded with mattresses and pots soon clogged the streets.

Siham Kafarneh, 37, sat on the steps of a small grocery, weeping. The mother of eight said the home she had moved into two months earlier and spent 10 years saving for had been destroyed.

"Nothing is left. Everything I have is gone," she said.

The Gaza violence has also triggered protests in the West Bank, where several days of demonstrations have left at least nine Palestinians dead.

Thousands took to the streets in Hebron, Bethlehem, Jenin and other cities on Friday night and into early Saturday. Israeli forces used live rounds and tear gas to disperse protesters.

On Thursday night, 10,000 demonstrators marched in solidarity with Gaza near the Palestinian administrative capital Ramallah, a scale recalling mass revolts of the past.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Imtiaz Tyab contributed to this report.

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