Israel extends Gaza ceasefire for 24 hours, Hamas rejects terms

GAZA/JERUSALEM Sun Jul 27, 2014 9:52am IST

A pro-Palestinian protester signs a giant Palestinian flag during a demonstration against Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip, in Ottawa July 26, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A pro-Palestinian protester signs a giant Palestinian flag during a demonstration against Israel's military action in the Gaza Strip, in Ottawa July 26, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Chris Wattie

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GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel extended a humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza Strip for another 24 hours, but Hamas, which dominates the coastal enclave, said it would only accept the truce if Israeli troops left the territory.

Israeli ministers had signalled that chances were remote for a comprehensive deal to end the 20-day-old conflict with Hamas and its allies, in which at least 1,050 Gazans - mostly civilians - have been killed, and 42 soldiers and three civilians in Israel have died.

"At the request of the United Nations, the cabinet has approved a humanitarian hiatus until tomorrow at 2400 (midnight local time, 2100 GMT Sunday)," the official, who was not identified, said in a statement after the cabinet session in Tel Aviv had ended. "The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) will act against any breach of the ceasefire."

Hostilities largely died down after the truce extension came into effect, but three projectiles launched from Gaza landed in Israel after daybreak, causing no casualties, an army spokeswoman said.

On Saturday, 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 began at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) to discover scenes of massive destruction in some areas.

The positions of both Israel and Hamas regarding a long-lasting halt to hostilities have remained 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 the Hamas tunnel network that crisscrosses the Gaza border.

Israel says some of the tunnels reach into Israeli territory and are meant to carry out attacks on its citizens. Other underground passages serve as weapons caches and Hamas bunkers. The IDF said it had uncovered four such tunnel shafts inside Gaza during the truce on Saturday.

The official said that with the truce in effect, troops had found it easier to operate against the tunnels as the immediate threat to their safety was diminished.

He said troops would act against any breaches of the ceasefire and efforts would be pursued to destroy the tunnels during the 24-hour period.

The cabinet will reconvene on Sunday to consider a continuation of the operation "until calm is restored to Israeli citizens for an extended period", he added.

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

Medics said eight Palestinians were killed on Friday in incidents near the West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron - the sort of death toll reminiscent of previous uprisings against Israel's prolonged military rule there.

DIPLOMATIC EFFORT

On the diplomatic front, international efforts to bring an end to hostilities and secure a longer-lasting truce were being led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris.

Kerry met the foreign ministers of France, Italy, Britain, Germany, Turkey and Qatar. (Full Story)

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

But an Israeli security minister, Gilad Erdan, said a definitive deal looked remote, with no representatives from Israel, Egypt or the Palestinian Authority at the Paris talks.

The deputy leader of Islamic Jihad, a militant group allied to Hamas, said Egypt's mediation efforts were still being considered, but improvements were being sought and, in the meantime, the fight would go on.

"We are still open to the Egyptian initiative and there are hot contacts to improve it ... We are going to pursue the battle until the blockade is ended. The resistance carries our demands," he said in a text message to reporters.

CASUALTIES

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said rescue teams had taken advantage of the truce to search wrecked neighbourhoods and had recovered some 147 bodies.

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

"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.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Noah Browning in Gaza, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Arshad Mohammed in Paris and Michelle Nichols in New York, Writing by Ori Lewis, editing by G Crosse and Ron Popeski)

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