JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel on Tuesday accepted an Egyptian proposal to end a week of the deadliest violence in the Gaza Strip for years, despite a Hamas decision to reject the US-backed truce.
The decision by Israel’s security cabinet was announced just minutes after the ceasefire was due to start at 0600 GMT.
But the resulting calm was short-lived, with the Israeli army confirming three rockets from Gaza hit southern Israel, although there was no immediate reports of a military response.
The truce proposal, laid out by Cairo late on Monday, won support from Washington as the death toll in Gaza soared to 192 following a week of intensive bombardment by the Israeli air force.
But the Islamist Hamas movement, whose militants have fired more than 1,000 rockets, ruled out any end to the fighting without a fully fledged agreement.
Cairo’s initiative was made after Washington warned Israel against a ground offensive, but stopped short of criticising Israel over the Palestinian civilian toll, and called on Hamas to halt rocket attacks.
“We are encouraged that Egypt has made a proposal to accomplish this goal that we hope can restore the calm that we are seeking,” said US President Barack Obama, describing the deaths of Palestinian civilians as a “tragedy” but expressing support for Israel’s right to defend itself.
Singapore said it welcomed the Egypt proposal and urged all sides to work closely with Cairo to prevent further destruction and casualties.
“We are deeply concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian crisis and the continued conflict in Gaza. We welcome and support the ceasefire proposal by Egypt,'' Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Tuesday. "We urge all sides to work closely with Egypt to prevent further destruction and casualties. The immediate priority for all sides is to work towards a ceasefire, bring an end to the suffering and loss of innocent lives, and allow humanitarian assistance to reach the affected areas,” it added.
Israel launched Operation Protective Edge before dawn on July 8, hitting Gaza with an intensive aerial bombing campaign aimed at stamping out cross-border rocket fire. Militants answered with hundreds of rockets, dozens of which have targeted central and even northern Israel.
The deadly conflict, which has claimed the most victims since Israel’s blistering 22-day offensive in 2008-2009, has also seen rockets from Syria and Lebanon hitting the Israeli north, raising fears of the conflict spreading.
Overnight, three rockets fired from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula hit Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat, two of them inside the city, causing damage, and one outside in an open area, the military said.
Hamas rejectionDetails of Egypt’s proposal came late on Monday. “0600 GMT has been set for the beginning of the implementation of truce arrangements between the two sides,” a statement said, with Cairo saying it would be willing to host talks between high-level Israeli and Palestinian delegations after the ceasefire went into effect.Israel’s security cabinet met early Tuesday, and ministers voted six to two in favour of accepting the truce.
Two hardliners voted against – Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, both of whom have expressed support for a reinvasion of Gaza.
But in the decision, Israel warned that if there was renewed fire from Gaza militants it would “hit back with force", army radio reported.
Despite the efforts to restore calm, Hamas rejected Egypt’s proposal, with spokesman Fawzi Barhum telling AFP there would be no truce without a fully fledged deal to end hostilities.
“In times of war, you don’t cease fire and then negotiate,” he said.Hamas had not received any official proposal, and even if Israel held its fire, it would have “no value” after the widespread damage it has wreaked in Gaza, he said.
And its militant wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, rejected the proposal as “surrender", pledging to “intensify” attacks on Israel.Hamas has said it will not hold its fire without Israel agreeing to a list of demands, including an end to its eight-year blockade on Gaza and opening the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
It also wants Israel to free Palestinians it rearrested after releasing them in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas welcomed the Egyptian initiative, as did the Arab League which called on “all parties” to accept the truce.
Washington warned its Israeli ally against mounting a possible ground invasion as the death toll from air strikes spiralled, drawing criticism from the United Nations and rights watchdogs.
“Nobody wants to see a ground invasion because that would put more civilians at risk,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
It was the first time the White House has specifically warned against an Israeli invasion of Gaza.
As the conflict entered its eighth day, the death toll hit 188, more than the toll from eight days of violence in the last major confrontation in November 2012.
Human rights groups say more than 75 per cent of the dead have been non-combatants, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees said more than a quarter were children.
Over the same period, 840 rockets have struck Israel, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the northern city of Hadera.
Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system has shot down 191 rockets, the army said.