Hamas breaches truce, resumes rocket attacks

After Israel extends lull in fighting by four hours, group says it agreed to no such move

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. (AP/Hatem Moussa)
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hamas said it fired five rockets at Israel late Saturday after rejecting Israel’s offer to extend a 12-hour humanitarian truce by four hours.

Hamas said two of the rockets were aimed at Tel Aviv. Police in Israel’s second-largest city dispersed a peace rally attended by several thousand people because of the threat, a spokesman said.

Israel had decided to extend the 12-hour lull by four more hours, until midnight Saturday. But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri later said that the group rejected the four-hour extension. Shortly after 8 p.m., Hamas claimed responsibility for firing five rockets at Israel, including two at Tel Aviv. The IDF said three rockets fell in southern Israel.

In Paris, US Secretary of State John Kerry and European foreign ministers had met earlier Saturday to find ways to transform Saturday’s initial 12-hour lull into a sustainable truce. Israeli ministers on Friday unanimously rejected Kerry’s ceasefire proposal, and Israeli government sources castigated his handling of the affair.

In Gaza, thousands of residents who fled the violence streamed back to devastated border areas during the truce to find large-scale destruction: fighting had pulverized scores of homes, wreckage blocked roads and power cables dangled in the streets.

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

“Nothing is left. Everything I have is gone,” she said.

Palestinians pass by destroyed houses after they salvage usable things in their belongings found at their destroyed houses during a 12-hour cease-fire in Gaza City's Shejaiya neighborhood, Saturday, July 26, 2014.  (Photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinians pass by destroyed houses after they salvage usable things in their belongings found at their destroyed houses during a 12-hour cease-fire in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, Saturday, July 26, 2014. (Photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)

Palestinian officials in Hamas-run Gaza say more than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed and more than 6,000 have been wounded over the past 19 days. Israeli strikes have destroyed hundreds of homes, including close to 500 in targeted hits, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee, according to Palestinian rights groups.

Across Gaza, more than 130 bodies were pulled from the rubble Saturday, officials said. In southern Gaza, 20 members of an extended family were killed before the start of the lull when a tank shell hit a building where they had sought refuge, medics said.

Israel says hundreds of those killed were militants, and Gaza officials confirm the dead include “fighters.” Israel says it is doing its utmost to prevent civilian casualties, including sending evacuation warnings to residents in targeted areas, and blames Hamas for putting civilians in harm’s way. Israel has lost 40 soldiers and two civilians, and a Thai worker also has been killed. Hamas has fired over 2,000 rockets throughout Israel, and carried out five attacks, killing six IDF soldiers, through the tunnels it has dug under the Israeli border.

“There is no proof that any kind of gratuitous damage is being inflicted,” said Israeli legislator Ofer Shelah of the centrist Yesh Atid party. Israeli troops are “fighting with an enemy dug in within the civilian population, dug in underground or within the houses there,” he said, adding that “those are the consequences of such a fight.”

Israel launched a major air campaign in Gaza on July 8 and later sent ground troops into the Hamas-ruled territory in an operation it said was aimed at halting Palestinian rocket fire and destroying the cross-border tunnels dug for attacks on its civilian population.

In Paris, Kerry met with European foreign ministers and later with foreign ministers from Qatar and Turkey to try to salvage truce efforts.

On Friday, Israel rejected a proposal by Kerry and UN chief Ban Ki-moon to halt fire for a week and to begin talks during this period on easing the border blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. It said the offer was tilted towards Hamas.

Hamas has said it will not halt fire until it wins guarantees that the border blockade, enforced by Israel and Egypt to prevent Hamas expanding its military capabilities, would be lifted.

Any new border arrangements for Gaza would likely give a role to Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the main political rival of Hamas.

Hamas violently seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, triggering the Gaza blockade by Israel and Egypt. However, Abbas reached a power-sharing deal earlier this year with Hamas. Under the deal, a government of technocrats headed by Abbas was to prepare for new elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

Egypt wants forces loyal to Abbas to be posted on the Gaza side of the mutual border before considering open the Rafah crossing there, Gaza’s main gate to the world.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in Paris that he and his counterparts from other nations are calling on both sides to negotiate a sustainable ceasefire.

Such a truce should meet Israeli security concerns, but also “the Palestinians’ expectations in terms of economic development and access to Gaza,” he said. “We are convinced of the need to involve the Palestinian Authority in achieving these objectives.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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