Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo

Uneasy 72-hour cease-fire begins in Gaza

Five people killed soon after start of unconditional humanitarian truce between Israel, Hamas

A 72-hour cease-fire in the Gaza went into effect early Friday morning after heavy fighting between Israeli and Hamas forces. Within hours of the start of the truce, five people had been killed.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had announced on Thursday that an unconditional humanitarian truce in Gaza would begin at 8 a.m. local time on Friday and last 72 hours as agreed by all parties.

Kerry cautioned that there are "no guarantees" the lull in violence will bring an end to the 24-day-old Gaza war as Israel and Hamas agreed to send negotiators to Cairo to seek a permanent end to the bloodshed.

"This is not a time for congratulations or joy or anything except a serious determination — a focus by everybody to try to figure out the road ahead," Kerry said. "This is a respite. It is a moment of opportunity, not an end."

The need for talks was clear just hours before the cease-fire began as 17 Palestinians died in Israeli strikes and Israel's military said five soldiers were killed along the Gaza border the previous evening.

There was an immediate lull as the as the truce began but less than three hours later, medics reported five people were killed and more than a dozen wounded in Rafah as a result of Israeli tank shelling.

There were also reports of sniper fire in the east of Gaza City. 

At least four short humanitarian cease-fires have been announced since the conflict began, but each has been broken by renewed fighting. Israel also reiterated early Thursday that it would not stop destroying Hamas' tunnel network even in the event of a cease-fire.

Before the announcement, the White House criticized Israel’s deadly shelling of a United Nations school in the Gaza Strip as “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible,” one day after reports surfaced that Washington had agreed to allow Israel to replenish its dwindling munitions with a local U.S. arms stockpile.

The White House comment, delivered by spokesman Josh Earnest, was the Obama administration’s strongest critique yet of Israel’s weeks-long offensive against Hamas in the coastal enclave, and came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with the operation “with or without a cease-fire.”

“The shelling of a U.N. facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible,” Earnest said.

The shelling occurred amid growing White House frustration with the scope of civilian casualties resulting from Israel's ground and air war. Palestinian health officials said at least 17 people were killed and 90 wounded in the Wednesday school attack — the latest in a series of strikes the U.N. said hit facilities designated as safe zones.

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Palestinian authorities and witnesses blamed the attack on Israeli forces. Israel cast doubt on its responsibility, saying that forces responded to militants firing rockets from around the school, but that it was not clear which party had shelled the facility.

The White House — which contends Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas rockets — had initially condemned the shelling but pointedly did not assign blame. On Thursday, however, Earnest said that “it does not appear there's a lot of doubt about whose artillery was involved.”

Earnest said Israel “can and should do more to protect the lives of innocent civilians.”

Later Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren echoed Earnest’s statement.

“Civilian casualties in Gaza have been too high, and it’s become clear that the Israelis have to do more to live up to their very high and public standards for protecting civilian lives,” he said.

The Gaza Health Ministry reports that more than 1,400 Palestinians — mostly civilians — have been killed since Israel launched its assault on Gaza 25 days ago. On the Israeli side, 59 people, including two civilians and a migrant worker, have died.

Offensive to continue

Earlier on Thursday, Israel had vowed to press ahead with its efforts to wipe out Palestinian tunnels, calling up thousands more reservists and signaling no let-up until all tunnels used by Palestinian fighters are destroyed.

Speaking ahead of a Cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said he was determined to “complete this important task for the sake of Israel’s security."

“We are determined to complete this mission with or without a cease-fire,” Netanyahu said. His comments followed thos of Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, chief of Israeli forces in Gaza, who earlier suggested that his troops were “but a few days” from “destroying all tunnels” used by Hamas fighters to infiltrate Israel.

Underscoring the desire to push on with the offensive, Israeli military sources said Thursday that a further 16,000 reservists were being called to relieve a similar number being stood down.

Israel’s military push is being reinforced by Washington’s decision to allow Israel to tap a local U.S. arms stockpile to resupply Israeli forces with 40 mm grenades and 120 mm mortar rounds. The move is "consistent with" the objective of assisting Israel with developing its "self-defense capability," Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon's press secretary, said Wednesday.

The stockpile was located inside Israel as part of a program managed by the U.S. military and called War Reserves Stock Allies-Israel (WRSA-I), which stores munitions locally for U.S. use that Israel can also access to replenish stocks in emergency situations.

Israel, however, did not cite an emergency when it made its latest request about 10 days ago, a defense official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Additional requests for U.S.-manufactured ammunition were also being processed in the United States, the defense official said.

Separately, the U.S. Congress is looking to provide millions of dollars in additional funding for Israel's Iron Dome missile shield. The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee added $225 million for Iron Dome to a spending bill, intended mainly to provide money to handle an influx of thousands of Central American children across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Failing diplomacy

The U.S. military aid to Israel comes despite growing irritation displayed publicly from the White House with Israel and the mounting civilian casualties stemming from its war against Hamas. On Sunday, President Barack Obama called for an immediate and sustainable cease-fire in Gaza.

"We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in U.N.-designated shelters in Gaza," said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council.

U.S. frustrations have been compounded by a flurry of Israeli media reports this week that appeared aimed at discrediting Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent days trying to negotiate an unsuccessful cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was forthright in his criticism of Israel’s strike at a U.N. school.

"It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice," Ban said.

Hours after Israel’s strike on the U.N. school, 17 Palestinians, including a journalist, were killed by Israeli shelling near a produce market in the town of Shujayea.

The attack, which Israel has yet to comment on, occurred during a temporary cease-fire Israel had declared earlier Wednesday.

"Such a massacre requires an earthquake-like response," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in regard to that incident. Fighters aligned to his group’s military wing have been behind dozens of daily rockets launched deep into Israel. The Israelis have kept casualties from the salvos low with nine Iron Dome interceptor batteries and air-raid sirens that send people to shelters.

Most of the rockets fired by Hamas do not reach population centers.

In Gaza, rolling Israeli ground assaults on residential areas, prefaced by mass warnings to evacuate, have displaced more than 250,000 of the enclave’s 1.8 million Palestinians. The tiny territory's infrastructure is in ruins, with power and water outages as a result of missile strikes.

Israel says it is trying to avoid civilian casualties, and blames them on Hamas and other Palestinian factions, who Israel says use civilians as human shields — a charge Palestinian groups and civilians deny.

Condemnation of the violence and Israel's offensive in particular has poured in from around the world, with Latin American countries making especially bold pronouncements.

Bolivian President Evo Morales on Wednesday declared Israel a "terrorist state" because of its offensive in Gaza, and said his government will now require Israeli citizens to obtain a visa to visit Bolivia. Other South American countries including Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru have recalled their ambassadors from Israel in protest of its actions in the occupied territory.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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