Israel, Gaza militants start 72-hour ceasefire

Smoke billows from buildings following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on July 31, 2014. A 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Gaza militants went into effect on Friday, as a diplomatic push for a more durable end to
Smoke billows from buildings following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on July 31, 2014. A 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Gaza militants went into effect on Friday, as a diplomatic push for a more durable end to almost four weeks of bloodshed gained pace. -- PHOTO: AFP

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories (AFP) - A 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Gaza militants went into effect on Friday, as a diplomatic push for a more durable end to almost four weeks of bloodshed gained pace.

As the humanitarian truce began at 0500 GMT (1pm Singapore time), the skies over the Gaza Strip fell silent, although in the preceeding two hours there was heavy Israeli fire and the sound of outgoing rockets.

Earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that once the ceasefire was under way, Israeli and Palestinian representatives, including from Hamas, would begin more durable truce talks in Cairo, in a move confirmed by Egypt.

But Israeli forces would remain inside Gaza, he added, after the Jewish state vowed it would not accept any ceasefire that did not allow troops to continue destroying tunnels used by militants to attack its territory.

As the truce took hold, Gaza doctor Belal al-Dabour tweeted: "This ceasefire should give us a glimpse on our life for the coming months after Israel destroyed everything. It's not going to be pretty.

"Calm. Let's sleep y'all!" Hours earlier, Israeli tank and air fire killed 14 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli army said five of its soldiers died in mortar fire near the border with the Palestinian enclave.

While the ceasefire was accepted by Hamas, the main power in Gaza, in the name of all militant groups, a spokesman for the Islamist movement stressed it was dependent on Israel reciprocating.

"Hamas and all the resistance movements have accepted a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire from 8:00am Friday which will be respected by all these movements if the other party also observes the ceasefire," said Fawzi Barhum.

A source in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "Israel has accepted the US/UN proposal for a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire beginning 8:00 am Friday".

- 'US-UN initiative' -

The ceasefire was a joint US-UN initiative and would give civilians "a much needed reprieve", Kerry said in New Delhi.

"This is a respite, a moment of opportunity - not an end. It's not a solution," he warned, saying Israel would still be allowed to carry out "defensive" operations to destroy tunnels.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond welcomed the halt to firing, the latest and longest of several.

"We should now redouble our efforts and leave no stone unturned, to ensure this is a lasting and durable ceasefire to make way for substantial discussions to resolve the underlying issues on both sides," he said.

Just minutes before the truce deadline, Palestinians continued to fire rockets into southern Israel, with five brought down by missile defences, army radio said.

The 14 Palestinians who died included a woman and at least two children killed by Israeli tank fire in the southern Gaza Strip early Friday, the emergency services said.

Six of them were killed in an Israeli air strike in the same area.

Their deaths bring the toll on the Palestinian side to 1,450 since the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip began on July 8.

UN figures show about two-thirds of the victims were civilians, drawing sharp criticism from around the world.

Meanwhile the Israeli army said that "five soldiers were killed during operational activity along the border with the Gaza Strip when a mortar was fired at the forces." Their deaths bring the Israeli military toll to 61, since the beginning of "Operation Protective Edge," it added.

- Tunnel vision -

The ceasefire came after the UN Security Council expressed "grave disappointment" that repeated calls for a truce had not been heeded, and demanded there be a series of humanitarian breaks to ease conditions for civilians trapped in the war-torn territory.

Egypt has invited Israel and the Palestinian Authority to send delegates to Cairo for longer-term truce talks.

"Egypt emphasises the importance of both sides committing to the ceasefire so the negotiations can take place in a favourable atmosphere," the foreign ministry in Cairo said.

The delegations were expected to start arriving in Cairo later in the day.

Frank Lowenstein, the US Middle East envoy, was also expected to depart on Friday for the Egyptian capital, the State Department said.

Despite rising international concern over the civilian death toll in Gaza, Washington said it had agreed to restock Israel's dwindling munitions supplies.

The announcement came as the White House said there was little doubt that Israeli artillery was the source of a "totally indefensible" strike on a UN school in northern Gaza that killed 16 people on Wednesday.

The school was sheltering more than 3,000 Palestinians made homeless by the relentless fighting.

"It does not appear there's a lot of doubt about whose artillery was involved in this incident," spokesman Josh Earnest said.

The Israeli army has suggested the deaths may have been the result of a misfired Palestinian rocket.