Gaza Ceasefire Collapses After Two Hours - Israeli Shelling Resumes
The humanitarian truce in Gaza has collapsed after two hours with fierce fighting in the south of the enclave, the capture by Hamas of an Israeli soldier and a formal Israeli announcement that it would resume its military operation.
Israeli tank fire on the southern town of Rafah was reported to have killed at least 40 Palestinians on Friday, turning what was intended to be the first day of calm into one of the deadliest days in Gaza so far. Hamas launched rockets towards Israel, while fierce small-arms fire and artillery shelling erupted at Beit Hanoun and Gaza’s northern end.
The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) later said it feared one of its soldiers may have been abducted in an early morning attack by Palestinian militants at a tunnel near Gaza. Israel Radio named him as Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, 23, from Kfar Saba. A senior Hamas member, Musa Abu Marzouk, said the soldier was an officer taken prisoner near Rafah before the ceasefire came into effect.
Palestinian fishermen who had ventured tentatively out into the Mediterranean earlier in the morning rushed to get back to port, while air raid sirens could be heard along the neighbouring Israeli coast.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel’s military coordinator in the Palestinian territories told the UN envoy, Robert Serry, that as far as Israel was concerned the ceasefire – announced on Thursday night after lengthy behind-the-scenes negotiations – was over. Israel claimed that the truce was first broken by an ambush by Palestinian militants on Israeli forces near Rafah.
The ferocious outbreak of hostilities crushed hopes of an enduring truce even as US negotiators were on the way to Cairo for Egypt-brokered talks that were supposed to turn the ceasefire into a broader peace agreement. A Palestinian delegation named by the president, Mahmoud Abbas, but including Hamas members, was supposed to travel there on Friday, with Israeli negotiators flying after the Sabbath on Saturday night. It was not clear whether either side would still make the journey in the hope of salvaging something from the diplomatic effort of the past two weeks involving the US, Turkey and Qatar.
Both Israel and Hamas had earlier confirmed their agreement to the truce. In a brief statement issued about an hour before the ceasefire was due to begin, the Israeli government said: “In accordance with the authority granted by the security cabinet to the prime minister and the minister of defence, Israel has accepted the UN/US proposal for a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire beginning 8am Friday.”
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the group would abide by the ceasefire, Reuters reported. “Acknowledging a call by the United Nations and in consideration of the situation of our people, resistance factions agreed to a 72-hour humanitarian and mutual calm that begins at 8am on Friday as long as the other side abides by it,” he said. “All the Palestinian factions are united behind the issue in this regard.”
The ceasefire broke down after fishermen in Gaza City had spent only a few minutes at sea for the first time since the war began. City inhabitants had tentatively left their homes, some for the first time for days, and queues formed for taxis. Most of those on the streets were hoping to return to homes they had not seen for weeks or to salvage belongings. Grocery shops rapidly opened, selling basic foodstuffs.
But as the shells began to fall again, the fishermen returned and children raced off the beach.
In the two hours the ceasefire lasted, while the majority of Gaza residents had allowed themselves some faint hopes for the future, others had remained defiant.
Samira Attar, 27, sitting in a donkey cart with her husband, five children and three mattresses, said she was heading back to her house in Atatra, in the north of the strip. “I am going back to my house for the first time for 17 days. I hope this ceasefire will hold for the whole 72 hours and longer, God willing. We don’t need more bloodshed, or more devastation. I’d like to see Israel to be defeated and broken but the circumstances were very difficult,” Attar said.
Smoke rises following what witnesses said were Israeli air strikes in Rafah. Photograph: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Harth Nassr, 34, a restaurant worker from Beit Hanoun, a heavily hit village in the north-east of the Gaza Strip, said he too was optimistic.
“I think it will hold this time. Everybody is tired of this war,” Nassr said.
Nassr’s home was destroyed after he evacuated following a warning from Israeli forces to leave the area. “I left my house 10 days ago. I went there only once in the last 10 days and found the whole building, all three storeys, destroyed. I’m going back today to see if I can get any of my belongings,” Nassr said.
Fighting had continued until the last moment before the ceasefire began on Friday morning. Gaza came under heavy shelling and artillery fire overnight, and sirens warning of rocket attacks sounded in southern Israel. Palestinian sources said 17 people, including 10 members of one family, had been killed in Khan Younis in the early hours of Friday. The Palestinian death toll on Friday morning stood at more than 1,400, most of them civilians.
The IDF said five of its soldiers were killed in a mortar attack on the Gaza border, bringing the total number of military casualties to 61. Three civilians were also killed by rocket fire in Israel.
Some had doubted that the war was over. Isham Abu Ramadan, 42, a construction worker who said his house was destroyed in an air strike earlier this month, said he was not optimistic.
“We have long experience of Israel. They break the ceasefire all the time. They want to hit us more. They want more massacres. Israel doesn’t want to end the war and they don’t want a peace settlement. I don’t want a ceasefire. I want the resistance to fire until the end when Israel is defeated and asks for a truce,” Ramadan said.
Meanwhile, Israeli security forces were on high alert in East Jerusalem and the West Bank after Palestinian leaders called for a “day of rage” on Friday. Several protest marches were expected to begin after noon prayers.
Access to the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s old city was restricted to men over 50, women and children.
Last Friday, seven Palestinians had been killed in clashes with security forces during protests over the war, raising concerns over the use of live fire by the IDF.
In a joint statement on Thursday evening the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and the US secretary of state, John Kerry, had said the ceasefire would give “innocent civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence”. The pause would allow Gaza’s civilians to “bury the dead, care for the injured, and restock food supplies”, they had said. Repairs would also be made to water and power infrastructure damaged in the 24 days of conflict, which has killed 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians.
However, “forces on the ground will remain in place”, meaning Israel had succeeded in its insistence that its troops continue to search for and destroy Hamas tunnels during any humanitarian pause.
“We urge all parties to act with restraint until this humanitarian ceasefire begins, and to fully abide by their commitments during the ceasefire,” the two top diplomats had said.
“This ceasefire is critical to giving innocent civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence,” the statement had continued. “During this period, civilians in Gaza will receive urgently needed humanitarian relief, and the opportunity to carry out vital functions, including burying the dead, taking care of the injured, and restocking food supplies. Overdue repairs on essential water and energy infrastructure could also continue during this period.”
Ban and Kerry, who have been at the forefront of efforts to seek an end to the conflict, said the UN’s representative in Jerusalem, special coordinator Robert Serry, had received “assurances that all parties have agreed to an unconditional humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza”.
The US-UN statement had added: “Israeli and Palestinian delegations will immediately be going to Cairo for negotiations with the government of Egypt, at the invitation of Egypt, aimed at reaching a durable ceasefire. The parties will be able to raise all issues of concern in these negotiations.”
The ceasefire had been first announced in New Delhi during a diplomatic visit by Kerry. It followed mounting international outrage over the shelling earlier this week by Israeli forces of a UN school sheltering thousands of Palestinian families who had fled their homes after being warned by Israel to evacuate ahead of bombing. At least 15 people, including sleeping children, were killed, and hundreds injured.
Ban condemned the attack as “outrageous and unjustifiable” andPresident Barack Obama’s press secretary, delivering an unusually forthright response, called the attack “totally unacceptable” and “totally indefensible”.
Previous unilateral ceasefires had been short-lived, with each side blaming the other for violations. This was the first time that both parties had agreed to a pause during which further negotiations would begin.
The Egyptian government made a similar proposal more than two weeks ago, which Israel agreed to, but Hamas rejected.
The composition of the delegations to attend talks in Cairo was worked on into the night. Diplomatic sources indicated that Abbas would help decide the team representing the Palestinian side, but was not expected to attend the negotiations.
Egypt was expected to take a central role in facilitating the talks, which were to begin as soon as the parties arrived in Cairo.
The US was also sending a small delegation, including Bill Burns, deputy secretary of state, and Frank Lowenstein, Kerry’s special envoy for Middle East.
There were no immediate plans for Kerry, whose recent attempt to forge a ceasefire collapsed amid acrimony last weekend, to attend the talks, although a western diplomat said his attendance remained a possibility.
“This is a lull of opportunity,” Kerry had told reporters in New Delhi, according to Reuters. “It is imperative people make the best effort to try to find common ground.”