Israel, Hamas begin 72-hour cease-fire

A barrage of rockets from Gaza and air strikes from Israel preceded cease-fire brokered by Egypt

A wounded boy is carried to medical attention after an air strike on a United Nations-run school, where displaced Palestinains take refuge, in Rafah, August 3, 2014.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

A 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire brokered by Egypt has gone into effect in Gaza and Israel.

A barrage of rockets from Gaza, with air raid sirens howling throughout southern Israel, including in the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Beer Sheva, as well as around Jerusalem preceded the start of the truce at 8 a.m. Tuesday. 

Pieces of rocket fell on Jerusalem's Hebron Road, a major thoroughfare, according to Israeli police.

Israel also launched air strikes on Gaza City and on southern and central parts of the Palestinian territory in response to the rockets.

Hamas and Israel agreed on Monday to the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire starting Tuesday in the monthlong Gaza war that has claimed at least 1,867 lives — mostly Palestinian civilians — raising hopes that the bloodiest rounds of fighting could finally be coming to an end.

Israeli ground forces were also expected to withdraw completely from Gaza by the time the ceasefire began, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, Israeli military spokesman, said.

Lerner said troops would "be redeployed in defensive positions outside the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions".

He said the army overnight destroyed the last of 32 tunnels located inside Gaza. "Today we completed the removal of this threat," he said.

But both sides signaled a rough road ahead, with an Israeli official expressing skepticism given previous failures, and a Palestinian negotiator telling The Associated Press "it's going to be tough."

"We agree to begin implementing the Egyptian initiative. If the cease-fire is upheld there will be no need for any presence of [Israeli] forces in the Gaza Strip," said an Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Hamas told Egypt a short while ago of its acceptance of a 72-hour period of calm," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

"The deal is that we will have a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire," Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas leader, told Al Jazeera, adding that he hoped Israel could "control itself."

The agreement follows global condemnation of a third Israeli strike on a U.N. school on Sunday and rising civilian deaths.

Previous cease-fires have collapsed, including a similar plan for a 72-hour truce that broke down last Friday just hours after it began.

Egypt is now set to host indirect talks to work out a long-term truce. A delegation of Palestinian officials from various factions has been negotiating with Egypt in recent days.

"More delegations are due to arrive to Cairo soon to engage in the Egyptian initiative, which is mainly aimed at an immediate halt to the bloodshed through a comprehensive truce agreement," an Egyptian diplomatic source told Reuters. 

"The ball is in Israel's court. The plan now is to preserve a cease-fire and then bring the other issues to the table," a source close to Mahmoud Abbas, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, told Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

If a cease-fire does take hold, it will come after an Israeli strike at a U.N. school on Sunday killed 10 people, adding to the more than 1,800 fatalities — most of them civilians and many of them children — during the nearly monthlong offensive. Nearly 70 Israelis, almost all soldiers, were killed in the fighting since July 8.

Despite the partial Israeli truce earlier today, Palestinian officials said shelling continued soon after the seven-hour window opened. Ashraf al-Qudra, a Gaza Health Ministry spokesman, said one child died and 30 people were wounded in a strike Monday at a refugee camp.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said there had been no strikes since 10 a.m. local time when the truce began. She said four rockets were fired from Gaza later and two landed without causing damage.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri had warned the local population to be wary of the truce.

"Israel’s so-called humanitarian cease-fire is unilateral, and it comes in a time when the Zionist enemy wants to distract the world from the massacres they have committed against our people in Gaza," Abu Zuhri told the Hamas television station Al-Aqsa.

"We don’t trust their intentions, and we ask our people to take extreme caution."

Earlier Israel had said that its limited cease-fire would apply only to parts of the Gaza Strip where there is currently no military activity. To date, cease-fires imposed since Israel's offensive began on July 8 have not been successful, even when sponsored by the U.N.

In other developments, President Barack Obama signed a bill granting an additional $225 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars for Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.

The system allows Israel's military to shoot down incoming rockets or mortars headed toward major population centers in Israel. Israeli officials say it has a success rate as high as 90 percent.

In Jerusalem on Monday, an attacker rammed the front end of a large construction excavator into a bus, overturning the vehicle and killing a pedestrian before the driver was shot and killed by a police officer. Reuters reported that the driver was a Palestinian. Israeli police said five other people were lightly wounded what they are calling an attack.

Several hours later, a gunman shot and wounded a soldier near Jerusalem's Hebrew University before fleeing on a motorcycle, police said.

Attacks on Gaza on Monday ahead of the opening of the "humanitarian window" killed 11 people, among them a senior commander of Islamic Jihad — a Palestinian group fighting alongside Hamas. Islamic Jihad identified him as Danyal Mansour, head of the group's northern command, and said he was killed in a bombing of a house in Jabaliya. 

The Israeli army had said about the earlier 7-hour pause that it would be in force in all of the Gaza Strip except the area east of the southern city of Rafah, "where clashes were still ongoing and there was Israeli military presence." The army also warned that it would "respond to any attempt to exploit this window" and attack civilians and soldiers during the truce. "If the truce is breached, the military will return fire during the declared duration of the truce," an Israeli defense official said.

In places such as Beit Lahiya, where attacks on civilian targets killed dozens, it was reported that people were too frightened to go home even after receiving assurance from Israeli officials to do so.

Israel appears to be winding down its offensive and withdrew most of its ground troops from Gaza on Sunday. It says the military is close to completing its main objective of destroying cross-border infiltration tunnels but is prepared to resume strikes in response to any attacks by the Palestinians. The Israeli chief military spokesman said forces were being deployed along both sides of the Israel-Gaza border.

"Redeployment lets us work on the tunnels, provides defense [of Israeli communities nearby] and lets the forces set up for further activity. There is no ending here, perhaps an interim phase," Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz told Army Radio.

UN school attacks

The apparent pullback of troops and a partial cease-fire comes as Israel faces accusations that it is not doing enough to safeguard the lives of civilians in Gaza.

Ban Ki-moon, U.N. secretary-general, called Sunday's attack near the school sheltering some 3,000 Palestinians who had fled their homes due to the fighting "a moral outrage and a criminal act."

"This madness must stop," he said.

Jen Psaki, State Department spokesperson, said the United States was "appalled" by the attack and called for a "full and prompt" investigation.

"Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties," she said in usually blunt criticism of Israel by Washington.

The Israeli army said it was targetting three Islamic Jihad fighters on a motorbike "in [the] vicinity of a ... school in Rafah."

In a statement early on Monday, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu said, "Israel does not aim its fire at civilians and is sorry for any attack that unintentionally hits civilians," without directly addressing the Rafah attack.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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