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Gaza: US condemns 'barbaric' Hamas ceasefire breach

An Israeli soldier prepares his equipment at an army deployment area, on the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, on August 1, 2014
An Israeli soldier prepares his equipment at an army deployment area, on the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, on August 1, 2014

The United States placed the blame for Friday's rapid breakdown in the latest Gaza ceasefire squarely at the door of Hamas, accusing the Palestinian militants of launching a "barbaric" attack.

In recent days Washington had begun to express concern about the rising Palestinian civilian death toll in Israel's assault on Gaza, while still strongly backing its right to defend itself.

But on Friday, after reports that Hamas fighters had killed two Israeli soldiers and captured a third, the White House came down strongly on the side of its ally and demanded the soldier be released.

"The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today's attack, which led to the killing of two Israeli soldiers and the apparent abduction of another," Secretary of State John Kerry said.

"It was an outrageous violation of the ceasefire negotiated over the past several days, and of the assurances given to the United States and the United Nations."

Kerry demanded that Hamas "immediately and unconditionally release the missing Israeli soldier."

Israel ended a three-day truce only hours after it began, accusing Hamas of ambushing its troops.

US Secretary of State John Kerry announces a 72-hour humanitarian cease fire between Israel and Hamas while in New Delhi on August 1, 2014
US Secretary of State John Kerry announces a 72-hour humanitarian cease fire between Israel and Hamas while in New Delhi on August 1, 2014

Hamas for its part accused Israel of breaching the ceasefire after intensive shelling killed dozens of people in southern Gaza, but Washington sided with its ally's version of events.

"The Israelis of course are reporting this morning that that ceasefire was broken," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told CNN.

"Apparently, Hamas individuals used the cover of a humanitarian ceasefire to attack Israeli soldiers and even to take one hostage. That would be a rather barbaric violation of the ceasefire."

Earlier, Gaza had enjoyed a brief respite after Kerry and the United Nations announced a "humanitarian truce," what should have been the longest of several agreed since the conflict broke out on July 8.

Starting from 0500 GMT, it was supposed to mark a halt in the fighting that has killed nearly 1,500 on the Palestinian side, mostly civilians, and 63 Israeli soldiers and three civilians on the other.

The death toll has now passed that of Israel's 2009 "Cast Lead" operation against Gaza, and Washington raised concerns Thursday after Israeli shelling apparently hit a UN school sheltering refugees.

Smoke rises from the coastal side of the Gaza Strip following an Israeli controlled explosion of a tunnel, on August 1, 2014
Smoke rises from the coastal side of the Gaza Strip following an Israeli controlled explosion of a tunnel, on August 1, 2014

These concerns were pushed aside by Friday, however, when US officials insisted the priority was now the safe release of the missing soldier.

In 2006, when militants captured soldier Gilad Shalit, Israeli forces conducted a five-month operation agaisnt Gaza. He was released in 2011 in exchange for around a thousand Palestinians.

Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from India to discuss steps toward restoring calm, and said he would consult "regional partners" and the United Nations.

- 'Incredibly fragile' -

Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken defended US diplomacy, denying that confusion between an Egyptian-led initiative and one from Turkey and Qatar had undermined peace efforts.

"The reason for going through Turkey, going through Qatar, is they have a relationship with Hamas. They need to use their influence with Hamas," he told MSNBC.

A Palestinian boy walks over debris in Gaza City's Shejaiya neighbourhood, on August 1, 2014
A Palestinian boy walks over debris in Gaza City's Shejaiya neighbourhood, on August 1, 2014

"The Egyptians had an initiative. The Israelis signed up to it repeatedly and that was a good basis for trying to move forward.

"But Secretary Kerry said last night in announcing this humanitarian pause that it was incredibly fragile and unfortunately we've seen the demonstration that that's true."

Both US officials defended Israel against the charge that its assault on Gaza had been needlessly reckless with civilian lives, while still expressing concern over the death toll.

"Hamas intentionally targets civilians. The Israelis do everything they can to avoid targeting civilians," Blinken said, accusing Hamas of using Palestinians as "in effect human shields."

"Israel holds itself to a very high standard, but what we've seen is that it's incredibly difficult to meet its very own high standard."

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