GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel and Hamas began a 12-hour humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza Saturday after the efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry failed to produce a longer truce aimed at ending nearly three weeks of fighting.
The temporary lull appeared unlikely to change the course of the current hostilities amid ominous signs that the war was spilling over into the West Bank and a warning by Israel’s defense minister that it might soon expand its Gaza ground operation “significantly.”
The Israeli military said the 12-hour pause began Saturday at 8 a.m. (1:00 a.m. EST, 0500 GMT). It said troops “shall respond if terrorists choose to exploit” the lull to attack Israeli soldiers or civilians. The military also said “operational activities to locate and neutralize tunnels in the Gaza Strip will continue.”
Israel launched a major aerial offensive in Gaza on July 8 and later sent ground troops into the Hamas-ruled territory in a bid to halt Palestinian rocket fire and destroy a vast network of cross-border tunnels used by militants to stage attacks.
Previous humanitarian cease-fires have been cut short by fighting. Palestinian civilians have been hardest hit over the past 18 days. Nearly 900 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed, as well as 39 Israelis, including 37 soldiers. A Thai worker in Israel was also killed.
The lull was agreed upon by both sides after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry failed to broker a weeklong truce as a first step toward a broader deal.
“We are looking for a long cease-fire, not only 12 Hours,” said Gaza resident Mohammad Abu Shaaban. “We hope the cease-fire will continue and not to return back to the killing and destruction.”
Israel wants more time to destroy tunnels and rocket launching sites in Gaza, while the territory’s Hamas rulers want international guarantees that an Israeli and Egyptian border blockade will be lifted.
The Israeli government has also begun suggesting that Gaza be demilitarized as a condition for a permanent cease-fire so that Hamas cannot rearm itself ahead of yet another round of fighting. The current war is the third in Gaza in just over five years.
In the West Bank, which had been relatively calm for years, protests raged Friday against Israel’s Gaza operation and the rising casualty toll there. In the West Bank, at least six Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, hospital officials said.
Gaza militants have fired close to 2,500 rockets at Israel since July 8, exposing most of Israel’s population to an indiscriminate threat that has killed three civilians.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Friday that Israel’s military would continue to strike Hamas hard.
“At the end of the operation, Hamas will have to think very hard if it is worth it to taunt us in the future,” Yaalon was quoted as telling soldiers manning an Iron Dome anti-missile battery. “You need to be ready for the possibility that very soon we will order the military to significantly broaden ground activity in Gaza.”
Heller reported from Tel Aviv.