Gaza casualties climb as Israel approves 24-hour ‘pause’ in fighting

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 26, 2014 

Mideast Israel Palestinians

Palestinian Mukaram Keferna cries upon her return to what was the family house, destroyed by Israeli strikes in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, July 26, 2014. Thousands of Gaza residents who had fled Israel-Hamas fighting streamed back to devastated border areas during a lull Saturday, and were met by large-scale destruction: scores of homes were pulverized, wreckage blocked roads and power cables dangled in the streets. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)


— Israel agreed Saturday to a United Nations request to extend a “humanitarian pause” in its military offensive in the Gaza Strip for an additional 24 hours, following a day-long lull in which Palestinians stocked up on supplies and pulled dead and wounded from the rubble of neighborhoods devastated by fighting.

But a spokesman for Hamas, Sami Abu Zuhri, said the militant group would not accept an additional humanitarian pause without a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip that would enable Palestinians displaced by the hostilities to return home.

Hamas had held fire throughout the day Saturday, but fired three volleys of mortar and rocket attacks at Israel after a 12-hour lull ended at 8 p.m., despite an Israeli extension until midnight.

Diplomatic efforts to arrange a seven-day cease fire continued at meetings in Paris between Secretary of State John Kerry, his European counterparts and the foreign ministers of Turkey and Qatar. But aside from a statement urging an extension of the pause in fighting, there appeared to be no breakthrough in reaching a more lasting truce.

Throughout the day there were scenes of grief across the Gaza Strip as Palestinians who ventured back to their homes encountered extensive destruction in areas from which they had fled during fierce combat between Israeli forces and militants from Hamas and allied factions.

Women wept when they discovered their collapsed homes, and stunned men dug through pulverized buildings with rescue crews for bodies and possible survivors. People salvaged belongings from the debris before heading back to temporary shelters.

“It’s like an earthquake,” said one man, standing among the ruins.

“Nothing is left!” cried a woman who found her house destroyed.

Nearly 150 bodies were recovered in different areas, taking the Palestinian death toll to more than 1,000 since Israel began its military campaign against Hamas on July 8, according to local health officials. The United Nations said that about three-quarters of the dead were civilians.

As the pause drew to a close, Robert Serry, the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, asked for a 24-hour extension “to give civilians a chance to retrieve and bury their dead, flee to safer premises, re-supply with vital commodities and services and continue overdue emergency repairs on water and energy infrastructure.”

The Israeli security cabinet approved the request, cautioning that the army would respond to any violations and that troops would continue operations to uncover and destroy networks of Hamas tunnels, some of which were dug into Israel for cross-border attacks.

The army said it continued those operations during Saturday’s lull. It announced that two soldiers had died of their wounds, bringing the number killed in ground fighting to 42. The army says it has killed “a few hundred” militants in combat.

Since the start of the Israeli campaign in Gaza, two civilians and a Thai laborer have been killed by rocket strikes in Israel. Many of the rockets have landed in open areas, and scores fired at Israeli cities have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

Across the Gaza Strip on Saturday, people emerged onto the streets to buy food, withdraw money at banks and stock up on supplies depleted during days of hunkering down under Israeli bombardment.

People who fled the Shuja’iya quarter of Gaza City returned to find swaths of their neighborhood in ruins. Many surveyed their collapsed homes in shock, picking through the rubble to recover bedding and other belongings. A body recovered from a wrecked home was carried off in a blanket.

The Israeli army said that Shuja’iya had been a Hamas stronghold, riddled with rocket launching sites, weapons depots and a network of tunnels.

Many homes and shops in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip were also destroyed or heavily damaged by Israeli bombardments. Reporting from the deserted streets, a correspondent for the Al-Jazeera Arabic satellite channel called it a “ghost town.”

Siham Kafarneh, 37, sat on the steps of a small grocery, weeping, the Associated Press reported. The mother of eight said the home she had spent 10 years saving up for and moved into two months earlier had been destroyed.

“Everything I have is gone,” she said.

In one televised image from the southern town of Rafah, a father dug through the rubble of his home with neighbors for the remains of his son. Recovered bodies wrapped in white shrouds were laid on the floor of a hospital morgue.

The UN said that more than 180,000 people have fled the fighting and most were sheltering in schools of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees.

After his talks in Paris, Kerry said he was trying to arrange a truce accord and subsequent talks that would address the demands of both sides. Hamas wants the lifting of border closures imposed on the Gaza Strip by Egypt and Israel that have throttled the local economy.

Israel seeks the “demilitarization” of the Gaza Strip, ridding it of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and attack tunnels dug toward Israel.

“Israelis need to live free from rockets and from tunnels that threaten them,” Kerry said. “By the same token, the Palestinians can’t have a ceasefire in which they think the status quo is going to stay and they’re not going to have the ability to be able to live and breathe more freely and move within the crossings and begin to have goods and services that come in from outside.”

Kerry’s meetings included the Turkish and Qatari foreign ministers because the United States is using the two countries as intermediaries with Hamas. The U.S. has no contact with the group, which it considers a terrorist organization.


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