Israeli Cabinet Rejects U.S. Proposal For 'Humanitarian Pause' in Gaza Fighting
Israel's cabinet has unanimously rejected a US-backed proposal for a week-long "humanitarian pause" in the offensive on Gaza after 18 days of fighting that has claimed more than 800 Palestinian lives.
Binyamin Netanyhau and his ministers reached their decision on a day when Gaza's death toll reached 822 and five more Palestinians were killed in protests that spread to the West Bank. Hamas had already signalled its opposition to the terms of the US plan, which it deemed too favourable to Israel.
The Israeli decision, reported by Israel's Channel 2 TV, left the US secretary of state, John Kerry, struggling to find a way to continue his efforts to halt the bloodshed.
Unrwa, the UN refugee agency, said 150,000 people were now seeking shelter.
Militants again fired rockets out of Gaza, triggering sirens across southern and central Israel, including at the country's main airport. No injuries were reported, with the Iron Dome interceptor system knocking out many of the missiles.
Kerry spent the day holding talks and working the phones in Cairo in an atmosphere of what officials described as "cautious optimism" about the outcome of efforts to secure a truce.
Parallel contacts, between Turkey and the Hamas leader, Khaled Mishal, were also taking place in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Mishal has insisted on an end to the siege of Gaza; Israel on an end to cross-border attacks. The gap between the two sides is wide.
Israel army radio reported that Netanyahu's ministers had been divided over the wisdom of accepting Kerry's proposal, which was being supported by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. Hawkish ministers were said to favour widening the ground operation in Gaza and warning against any gain for Hamas. Under the US plan, Israeli troops could stay behind after a ceasefire to continue destroying cross-border tunnels. The week-long truce would be followed by talks on more permanent arrangements, under Egyptian supervision.
General Sami Turgeman, head of Israel's southern command, said his forces needed more time to destroy the tunnels in Gaza. Hinting at the growing pressure for a ceasefire, he told reporters: "We know that there are other timetables that can affect us, and we will use all the time that we have at our disposal."
Turgeman said Hamas fighters were in poor shape and were finding it harder to launch rockets into Israel.
The West Bank fatalities on Friday followed a big demonstration on Thursday night at the Qalandiya checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in which 10,000 demonstrators marched in solidarity with Gaza.
Two men were shot dead by Israeli troops and about 250 people injured, mostly from gunshots.
"Ambulances were coming every minute," said a doctor in the hospital's emergency department. "We have seen this before but not since the intifada," he said, referring to the last Palestinian uprising.
Israel announced that an army reservist had been killed in Gaza, bringing to 34 the number of soldiers lost since its ground offensive began.
Gaza officials said Israeli strikes killed 33 Palestinians on Friday, including the head of media operations for Hamas and his son.
The Israeli military said that one of its soldiers who had been missing since a battle in Shujai'iya on Sunday was dead.
"Oron Shaul is defined as 'a soldier killed in action whose burial site is unknown'," said an Israel Defence Forces statement. The soldier was in an armoured vehicle ambushed by Palestinians.
The bodies of six other infantrymen were recovered but Shaul's fate had been unclear. If Hamas is holding Shaul's body, it may give it leverage in bargaining for the release of prisoners which it is demanding as part of a ceasefire deal.
Unwra issued a strongly-worded statement about the Israeli military when a team including an international weapons expert visited the school at Beit Hanoun which came under attack on Thursday, causing at least 15 deaths and 200 injuries.
"The aim of the visit to the site was to survey the scene in the aftermath of the incident," Unwra said.
"The Israeli army had been notified in advance about the composition of the team, the time and purpose of the visit. The mission had to be cut short and the team was forced to leave the area after gunfire around the school. We again underline our call for an immediate and comprehensive investigation."
Violence in the Palestinian territories was echoed in neighbouring Jordan, where around 2,000 people demonstrated in Amman, after Friday prayers, chanting: "We sacrifice our blood and souls for you, Gaza" and "Bomb and destroy Tel Aviv". Protests were held in the northern cities of Zarqa and Irbid as well as in the south, in Karak.
In Iran hundreds of thousands of people took part in nationwide rallies in solidarity with Palestinians. Images showed demonstrators holding banners, such as one reading "Stop killing babies in Gaza". A group of demonstrators set fire to Israeli flags and carried puppets of Israeli and American officials.
In Lebanon, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, said: "This is the most critical period in the region's history since the rape of Palestine."