Gaza cease-fire unravels; Israeli soldier kidnapped
GAZA CITY — A cease-fire in Gaza unraveled Friday less than two hours after it took effect, with both sides accusing each other of violating the fledgling truce and the Israeli military saying one of its soldiers apparently was captured.
Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said an Israeli attack on Rafah in southern Gaza killed at least 27 people and wounded more than 100.
The official Palestinian news agency WAFA said assault involved Israeli artillery shelling, calling it a “violation of the cease-fire.”
Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan said the latest cease-fire attempt between Israel and Hamas made it clear that there was to be no military action whatsoever, and Israel violated it by attacking houses in Rafah. Hamas is still committed to the cease-fire, but will protect itself, he said.
Israeli forces were attacked in a “brutal incident” in the Rafah area that required them to defend themselves, Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said.
“Two of our servicemen, unfortunately, were killed, and one apparently has been kidnapped,” Regev said.
At the same time, rockets were launched into southern Israel from Gaza, he said.
“This clearly is Hamas violating this U.N.-sponsored cease-fire,” he said.
Israel’s military said it was working on an operation to decommission a tunnel when it was attacked. It was during this attack that the soldier was apparently kidnapped. The Hamas spokesman said the group has heard reports, but could not confirm that any soldier has been captured.
Hamas has been attacking Israeli forces inside Gaza on Friday morning, which an Israeli official described as “a grave violation” of the cease-fire.
In fact, Regev said, he does not know if a cease-fire can be revived. “You cannot have a situation where (Hamas) are shooting at us, and we are taking a time-out,” he said.
The Israeli military says that one of its soldiers, identified as 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, is missing after an attack by militants in Gaza. He is “suspected to have been abducted by terrorists,” Israel Defense Forces said in a statement. Two other soldiers were killed in the attack, the military said.
If the Israeli-Palestinian clash in Rafah is corroborated, it would be a violation by Gaza militants of the cease-fire that had been in place, said Robert Serry, U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process. The violation would be “condemned in the strongest terms,” he said.
The humanitarian truce had been announced Thursday by the United Nations and United States, after weeks of fighting and more than 1,500 deaths in Gaza, most of them civilians. It came into effect at 8 a.m. Friday in Gaza (1 a.m. ET).
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said the halt to hostilities was planned to last for 72 hours and provide an opportunity to seek a more lasting solution to the conflict.
“During this time, the forces on the ground will remain in place,” a joint statement by the United Nations and United States said.
Many Gaza residents have seen their neighborhoods hit hard and loved ones killed or wounded since Israel began Operation Protective Edge against Hamas on July 8.
Around a quarter of a million people in the small, impoverished territory have been displaced by the conflict, according to the United Nations. That’s about 14% of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million.
The cease-fire allows food and medical supplies to come and in, better care for the injured and burial of the dead.
Under the truce, Israeli and Palestinian officials are expected to meet in Cairo to try to reach “a durable cease-fire,” the U.N. and U.S. statement said. “The parties will be able to raise issues of concern in these negotiations.”
Tunnel demolition to continue
It remains to be seen whether the two sides, which are bitterly opposed on key issues, will be able to reach a breakthrough.
Previous cease-fire attempts in the conflict have failed to take hold or lasted only briefly.
Hamas has said it wants an end to Israel’s blockade on Gaza, which restricts the movement of goods and people. It also wants the release of prisoners detained by the Israelis.
Israel, meanwhile, has says it is aiming for the demilitarization of Hamas-controlled Gaza, removing the threat that militant weapons pose to Israeli civilians.
Before the cease-fire plan was announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said Israeli troops would continue destroying Hamas’ network of tunnels that run under the border into Israel with or without a truce.
While “neither side will advance … Israel will be able to continue its defensive operations for those tunnels that are behind its lines,” Kerry explained.
‘A difficult road’
Animosity between the two sides, which have gone to war three times in the past six years, runs deep. Israel, like the United States, designates Hamas as a terrorist organization. Hamas is committed to armed struggle against Israel.
Kerry called planned the talks “a lull of opportunity … to try to find a way to … obtain a sustainable cease-fire,” but admitted there are “no guarantees.” The negotiations will be mediated by Egypt and to include a small American delegation.
As Kerry noted, “Everyone knows it has not been easy to get to this point, and everyone knows it will not be easy to get beyond this point.”
Saeb Erakat, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, a separate group from Hamas, said the talks will include “all Palestinian factions.”
“It’s a difficult road. It’s a bumpy road,” said Erakat, a veteran Palestinian negotiator. “I am hoping against hope that we can do every possible effort with the help of everyone out there in order to ensure that we can reach a permanent cease-fire.”
U.N. official talks of potential war crimes
At least 1,452 people have been killed in Gaza, and 8,360 wounded, during the current conflict, Gaza Ministry of Health spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said. That’s more than the 1,417 Palestinians that the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said died in the 22 days of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which spanned 2008 and 2009.
Those killed in the current hostilities include 327 children and 166 women, the Gaza health ministry reports.
The bloodshed prompted the United Nations’ top human rights official to warn that war crimes may have been committed, accusing Israel of “deliberate defiance of obligations (to) international law.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay referred to the shelling of homes, schools, hospitals and U.N. premises, while insisting, “We cannot allow this impunity, we cannot allow this lack of accountability to go on.”
“None of this appears, to me, to be accidental,” Pillay said.
Pressure is coming from around the world over the growing civilian casualties in the conflict, which Israel says it tries to limit.
Chile, Peru, Brazil and Ecuador have pulled their ambassadors out of Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli offensive. Even the United States — an ally of Israel — believes “the Israelis need to do more” to prevent civilian deaths, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters.
‘So much loss of life’
Israel has been protected from many of Hamas’ rockets by its Iron Dome defense system, though some have still hit populated areas. That includes a rocket that struck a neighborhood Thursday in Qiryat Gat, about 20 miles from Gaza, seriously injuring a man and setting a car afire, Israeli police said.
Three civilians have been killed in Israel since the conflict began, while many more have been forced to take shelter as rockets rained overhead. Sixty-one Israeli soldiers have been killed during the hostilities, with five of those deaths occurring Thursday evening.
In Gaza, the situation is dire.
Clean water is inaccessible for most. And some 3,600 people have lost their homes.
“We cannot supply electricity” for hospitals, sewage treatment or domestic use, said Fathi al-Sheikh Khalil, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Energy Natural Resources Authority in Gaza. “This is a disaster.”
Sakher Joham is among those Palestinians hoping for an end to the misery.
The violence forced him to flee his home, with his five children and “just the clothes on my back.”
“We are tired, and we have had so much loss of life,” Joham, 32, said of himself and fellow Palestinians. “We want to live with our children a life of dignity, like the rest of the world.”