An Israeli soldier carries a 120 mm mortar shell outside the central Gaza Strip July 31, 2014. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing international alarm over a rising civilian death toll in Gaza, said Thursday he would not accept any ceasefire that stopped Israel completing the destruction of militant infiltration tunnels. Baz Ratner/Reuters
Israel and Hamas have agreed to a 72-hour ceasefire in the Gaza Strip starting on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday.
The ceasefire will begin at 8 a.m. local time on Friday, Aug. 1, they said in a joint statement. The statement said "forces on the ground will remain in place" during the truce, implying that Israeli ground forces will not withdraw from Gaza.
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"We urge all parties to act with restraint until this humanitarian ceasefire begins and to fully abide by their commitments during the ceasefire," Kerry and Ban said. "This ceasefire is critical to giving innocent civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence."
The statement continues to say the Israeli and Palestinian delegations will travel to Cairo, at the invitation of Egypt, to attempt to reach a “durable” ceasefire.
Kerry’s aides said the he made more than 100 calls over the last 10 days, including several dozen on Thursday alone, to broker the agreement that he failed to reach a week ago in Cairo to much ridicule and indignation from Israelis who accused him of going soft on Hamas.
He announced the deal in New Delhi, India, in the middle of the night Friday with an air of weariness, and solemnity, rather than declaring victory.
"This is not a time for congratulations and joy, or anything except a serious determination, a focus, by everybody to try to figure out the road ahead," Kerry told reporters, who were hastily summoned to his hotel suite only 45 minutes after the deal was struck.
"This is a respite. It's a moment of opportunity, not an end; it's not a solution. It's the opportunity to find the solution."
UN says both sides committing war crimes
Earlier Thursday, The UN's top human rights official accused both the Israeli military and Hamas militants of committing war crimes in Gaza, where Israel has waged battle for three weeks in an effort to destroy Hamas rockets and tunnels.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights NaviPillay on Thursday said that by placing and firing rockets within heavily populated areas, both sides are committing "a violation of international humanitarian law, therefore a war crime."
Pillay told reporters in Geneva she sees "a recurrence of the very acts" from the 2009 Gaza war in which the UN concluded Israel deliberately targeted civilians and might have committed war crimes, along with Hamas.
The Israeli government, she said, has defied international law by attacking civilian areas of Gaza such as schools, hospitals, homes and UN facilities. "None of this appears to me to be accidental," Pillay said. "They appear to be defying — deliberate defiance of — obligations that international law imposes on Israel."
At the United Nations headquarters in New York, Israel's Ambassador Ron Prosor responded to criticism of his country, saying: "I think the international community should be very vocal in standing with Israel fighting terrorism today because if not, you will see it on your doorstep tomorrow."
At least 1,441 Palestinians have been killed, three-quarters of them civilians, since hostilities began on July 8, according to Gaza health officials — surpassing the at least 1,410 Palestinians killed in 2009, according to Palestinian rights groups.
Israel says 56 soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a Thai agricultural worker have died — also far more than the 13 Israeli deaths in the previous campaign.
Pillay's remarks came as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sought written pledges of support from all political factions, including rival Hamas, in preparation for mounting possible war crimes charges against Israel, senior officials said.
Abbas hesitated in the past because such a step would transform his relations with Israel from tense to openly hostile and could put him on a collision course with the United States.
Israeli officials have said Israel is acting in self-defence by targeting Hamas's military arsenal and rocket-launching sites and have accused Hamas of using Gaza civilians as human shields.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his goal of destroying the Hamas tunnel network in the Gaza Strip, as the military called up another 16,000 reservists to pursue its campaign in the densely populated territory.
9,000 homes in Gaza destroyed: UN
Valerie Amos, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator, called for daily "humanitarian pauses" in the fighting to help aid reach civilians in the territory.
Amos provided the UN briefing with these numbers on the conflict:
- More than 9,000 homes in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed, according to preliminary reports.
- Two of the three main UN compounds have been damaged.
- Twenty-four medical facilities have been damaged or destroyed, some hit multiple times.
- More than 130 schools and other educational facilities have sustained damage.
- Gaza's only power plant was struck on Tuesday, destroying the fuel tanks.
- Hundreds of thousands of people are without access to regular water.
Israel targets Hamas tunnel network
Israel says most of the 32 tunnels it uncovered have now been demolished and that getting rid of the remainder will take no more than a few days.
"We have neutralized dozens of terror tunnels and we are committed to complete this mission, with or without a cease-fire," Netanyahu said Thursday in televised remarks. "Therefore, I will not agree to any offer that does not allow the military to complete this important mission for the security of the people of Israel."
For Israel, the tunnel network is a strategic threat. It says the tunnels are meant to facilitate mass attacks on civilians and soldiers inside Israel, as well as kidnappings, a tactic that Hamas has used in the past. Palestinian militants trying to sneak into Israel through the tunnels have been found with sedatives and handcuffs, an indication they were planning abductions, the military says.
Several soldiers have been killed in the current round of fighting by Palestinian gunmen who popped out of underground tunnels near Israeli communities along the Gaza border.
Israeli defence officials said the purpose of the latest call-up of 16,000 reserves was to provide relief for troops currently on the Gaza firing line, and amounted to a rotation that left the overall number of mobilized reservists at around 70,000. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.