Israel says ready to extend short Gaza truce; many bodies pulled from rubble

GAZA/JERUSALEM Sat Jul 26, 2014 10:28pm IST

1 of 5. A Palestinian woman reacts as she carries her belongings from her destroyed house in Beit Hanoun town, which witnesses said was heavily hit by Israeli shelling and air strikes during an Israeli offensive, in the northern Gaza Strip July 26, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Suhaib Salem

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GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel will extend a humanitarian truce in the Gaza Strip by a further four hours, a government source said on Saturday, as the number of Palestinian deaths in the 19-day war topped 1,000.

It was not immediately clear if Hamas Islamists, who control the coastal enclave, were also willing to prolong the ceasefire, which was originally due to last just 12 hours.

Gazans took advantage of the lull in fighting to recover their dead and stock up on food supplies, flooding into the streets after the ceasefire took hold at 8.00 a.m. (0500 GMT) and discovering scenes of massive destruction in some areas.

"It's all gone, our whole lives were in that house, home to 18 people!" screamed Zaneen, a small woman in a black robe and purple head scarf, as she wondered through the debris in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip.

"My God, we want peace, peace and for all this to stop!"

Israel's security cabinet was due to convene later on Saturday to discuss international efforts, being led by U.S, Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris, to secure a longer lasting truce.

But while Israel was ready to extend the ceasefire, one security cabinet minister, Gilad Erdan, said a definitive deal looked remote, with no representatives from Israel, Egypt or the Palestinian Authority attending the Paris talks.

"I think we are very far from a diplomatic solution. It makes much more sense that we are closer to expanding the military operation," he told Israel's Channel 2 Television.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said rescue teams had taken advantage of the truce to search wrecked neighbourhoods and had retrieved more than 100 bodies.

This brought the number of Palestinian fatalities, most of them civilians, up to 1,000 since July 8 when Israel launched its offensive, aimed at ending rocket fire out of Gaza.

Just before the truce started, 18 members of a single family, including five children, died in a strike near the southern town of Khan Younis, medics said.

WAR TOLL

Israel made clear that despite the truce, its military would carry on searching for hidden tunnels used by militants. Hamas and its allies agreed to the terms and there were no reports of major flare-ups through the day.

Kerry, who has been spearheading international efforts to end the fighting, left Cairo overnight and took his diplomatic push to Paris, where he met the foreign ministers of France, Italy, Britain, Germany, Turkey and Qatar.

"All of us call on the parties to extend the humanitarian ceasefire that is currently under way," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

Israel said five more of its soldiers were killed in pre-truce fighting in Gaza, bringing the army death toll to 40 as troops battled militants in the tiny Mediterranean enclave that is home to 1.8 million Palestinians.

Three civilians, including two Israeli citizens and a Thai labourer, have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza.

Stunned residents of Beit Hanoun wandered through destroyed streets lined with damaged houses or mounds of rubble where once whole buildings had stood.

"Pull yourself together, be strong, aren't you used to this by now!" one man barked at a sobbing younger relative, only to break down himself. "God help us!" he moaned.

Israeli tanks stood by as people searched through the debris for their belongings, packing whatever they could, blankets, furniture and clothes into taxis, trucks, rickshaws and donkey carts before fleeing the town.

Naser Tattar, director of Gaza's main Shifa hospital, said most of the bodies recovered on Saturday came from Beit Hanoun, Khan Younis and Shejaia -- a district east of Gaza City that has witnessed huge clashes between Israeli troops and militants.

EID AL-FITR

Before the truce started, militants fired a barrage of rockets out of Gaza, triggering sirens across much of southern and central Israel. No injuries were reported and the Iron Dome interceptor system shot down some missiles.

When the guns fell silent, many Gaza residents rushed out of their homes and lined up outside banks to withdraw cash. Gaza City market was packed with people buying food and clothes for the coming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

"For us the Eid is going to be another day of war, another day of grief. I hope it all ends before we lose more people," said Shaima Mahmoud who was shopping with her four-year-old daughter for a holiday dress.

Israel's and Hamas's positions regarding a long-lasting halt to hostilities remain far apart.

Hamas wants an end to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza before agreeing to halt hostilities. Israeli officials said any ceasefire must allow the military to carry on hunting down Hamas's tunnel network that criss-crosses the Gaza border.

Israel says some of the tunnels reached into Israel and were meant to carry out attacks on Israelis. Other underground passages serve as weapon caches and Hamas bunkers.

The Gaza turmoil has stoked tensions amongst Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

Medics said eight Palestinians were killed in incidents near the West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron on Friday -- the sort of death toll reminiscent of previous uprisings against Israel's prolonged military rule there, which shows no sign of ending.

(Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Gaza and Arshad Mohammed in Paris; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Tom Heneghan, Crispian Balmer and Stephen Powell)

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