72-hour Gaza cease-fire begins; U.S. to send delegation to Cairo talks

A 72-hour “humanitarian cease-fire” agreed to by Israel and Hamas, to be followed by immediate negotiations on a durable truce, went into effect Friday morning, a first step toward a halt of more than three weeks of fighting that has claimed the lives of more than 1400 Palestinians, 61 Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said that there had been no rocket fire from Gaza or Israeli attacks since the cease-fire went into effect at 8 a.m. local time, but Gaza media outlets reported some Israeli airstrikes and shelling that persisted after that hour.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Secretary of State John Kerry announced the agreement in a joint statement.

Under the terms of the cease-fire, Kerry told reporters in India, where he is on a diplomatic visit, Israel will be allowed to continue to search for Hamas-built tunnels “that are behind its lines,” but both sides “are expected to cease all offensive military activities, and neither side will advance beyond its current locations.”

As soon as the cease-fire has gone into effect, Kerry said, Egypt will invite both sides to Cairo “to engage in serious and focused negotiations . . . to address the underlying causes of this conflict.”

Kerry said that the United States would send a delegation to Cairo “to assist and take part in these negotiations,” and that President Obama had allotted $47 million for humanitarian assistance to Gaza, as part of an international aid effort.

Kerry called the three-day break in violence “a lull of opportunity” and cautioned that there are no guarantees that a long-term truce will result. “Everyone knows that it will not be easy . . . to get beyond this point,” he said.

“While we are grateful that the violence and the bloodshed has the opportunity to stop for more than 24 hours, it is up to the parties – all of them – to take advantage of this moment,” he said.

The U.N.’s Middle East envoy, Robert Serry, received assurances that “all parties have agreed to an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire” during which “civilians in Gaza will receive urgently needed humanitarian relief,” bury the dead, care for injured, restock food supplies, and repair damaged power and water lines, according to the announcement.

There was no immediate comment from Israel, but Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters that, in response to a request from the U.N. and “in consideration of the situation of our people,” Hamas and allied factions had agreed to the cease-fire “as long as the other side abides by it.”

Earlier Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had vowed to reject any cease-fire that required Israel to halt its hunt for tunnels that Hamas has dug, some of them to infiltrate Israel.

In public remarks at the start of a cabinet meeting, Netanyahu had been categorical about the tunnel search, the rationale for Israeli troops entering Gaza after days of aerial bombardment. “I will not agree to any proposal that does allow the IDF to complete this work which is important for the security of Israel’s citizens,” he said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces by their acronym.

Hamas had opposed any truce that would allow Israel to continue destroying the tunnels.

“The tunnels that the resisters are using in the battle with Israel are part of the weapons of the resistance, and the weapons of the resistance are not up for discussion,” Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, said in an interview this week.

The chief of Israel’s southern command, Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, said Wednesday that his forces were “a few days away from destroying all the attack tunnels” dug across the border into Israel. The army says it has located at least 32 tunnel networks and that so far half have been blown up.

Shelling and air assaults accompanying ground combat have taken a sharply rising toll of civilian casualties in Gaza, and on Thursday Netanyahu came under mounting criticism from Washington following Wednesday’s shelling of a U.N. school packed with war refugees that killed 15 Palestinians sheltering there from the fighting.

The Israeli army said it had returned fire after it was attacked by militants in the area.

Another 17 Palestinians were killed when a street market was shelled in Gaza City, and seven more died of their wounds on Thursday.

In what appeared to be a coordinated rebuke, both the White House and Pentagon said Israel was not doing enough to avoid civilian casualties.

“The shelling of a U.N. facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “It is clear that we need our allies in Israel to do more to live up to the high standards that they have set for themselves.”

“The Israeli military can and should do more to protect the lives of those innocent civilians,” Earnest said.

Using similar language, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said that “the civilian casualties in Gaza have been too high, and it’s become clear that the Israelis need to do more to live up to their very high standards…for protecting civilian life.”

U.N. officials have also expressed outrage over the school shelling, noting that Palestinians in Gaza, where the borders are sealed, have nowhere to escape the fighting.

On Thursday Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that “the shelling and bombing of U.N. schools, which have resulted in the killing and maiming of frightened women and children and civilian men, including U.N. staff, seeking shelter from the conflict. are horrific acts and may possibly amount to war crimes.”

“The same pattern of attacks is occurring now on homes, schools, hospitals, U.N. premises,” she said. “None of this appears to me to be accidental.”

She added, “It is completely unconscionable that the proportionality and precaution that international law requires is being ignored.”

The Israeli army says that it has warned Palestinians to leave combat zones, and that Hamas militants were turning residential areas into battlegrounds, firing on Israeli forces, launching rockets at Israel and storing weapons in schools and mosques.

Hamas was making “cynical use of civilians, putting civilians in battle zones and firing from these areas,” chief army spokesman Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz told Channel Two television. He warned that the army “will not endanger its soldiers.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Thursday that the shelling of the market area in the neighborhood of Shuja’iya came when Israeli tanks opened fire after they came under attack.

In a televised report from Gaza, the commander of the army’s Givati Brigade, Col. Ofer Winter, said that to avoid casualties among troops, homes suspected of being booby-trapped were either shelled, hit with anti-tank missiles or bulldozed before being approached.

Dozens of Palestinians were reported killed in fighting on Thursday, including 11 people were killed when a home was struck in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip.

A mortar attack on an army staging area near the border with the Gaza Strip killed five soldiers, the second such incident during the fighting.

Lesley Clark and Nancy A. Youssef contributed from Washington.