Hamas rejects truce extension in Gaza

Palestinians walk over the debris of buildings in the northern district of Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip during an humanitarian truce on Saturday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Israel said it was prepared to resume fighting in the Gaza Strip after Hamas rejected an offer to extend a daylong humanitarian truce by four hours, complicating an effort by international mediators to secure a longer cease-fire.

Three rockets and three mortar shells fired from Gaza landed harmlessly in Israel late Saturday at the end of the 12-hour truce, the Israeli military said. It warned people in Gaza against returning to neighborhoods where there had been heavy fighting before the truce.

Explosions were later heard in Gaza City.

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Saturday’s truce gave the Hamas-ruled territory’s 1.8 million people a respite from nearly three weeks of fighting. Israel halted attacks in civilian areas but kept drones in the air and said it continued searching for cross-border tunnels used by Hamas to infiltrate fighters into the Jewish state. The army said it “neutralized” four tunnel shafts.

As evening approached, Israel approved a four-hour extension of the truce, to midnight, but Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the group rejected it.

Later the Israeli military said its troops would “maintain defensive positions in preparation for further operational activity” in the coastal enclave.

The truce was the longest pause in 19 days of fighting. Palestinians who had fled their homes returned on foot to search for missing relatives, bury the dead and inspect damage from Israeli air and ground assaults on Hamas fighters who had dug into civilian neighborhoods.

Scores of bodies turned up amid the destruction. The Palestinian death toll recorded by Gaza’s Health Ministry over 19 days of fighting had spiked to 1,032 by Saturday evening—an increase of 184 since late Friday. Israel said four of its soldiers died fighting in Gaza in the hours before the truce, raising the toll on the Israeli side to 40 soldiers and three civilians.

In Shujaiyeh, a Gaza City neighborhood where ground combat had raged since Sunday, dozens of people crowded the cemetery to dig graves for the newly discovered dead. Others, who had been trapped by the fighting, gathered belongings and left, some with mattresses tied to the tops of cars.

Along the length of the coastal enclave, people lined up outside banks to withdraw cash and stock up on food and gifts for Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic feast that falls on Sunday and follows the fasting month of Ramadan.

Israel and Hamas agreed to the truce late Friday after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry failed to broker a weeklong cease-fire as a first step toward a broader peace accord. After nearly a week of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, Mr. Kerry flew to Paris to continue his efforts into the weekend, expressing optimism for prospects of an eventual deal.

Mr. Kerry and foreign ministers from Europe and the Middle East had urged Israel and Hamas to extend the truce.

In the hours before the lull, Israel carried out airstrikes and tank assaults in Gaza. The Palestinian Health Ministry said one attack hit an apartment building in the southern Gazan village of Bani Sohaila, killing 20 people, including eight children, who had taken shelter there after fleeing their homes.

Militants fired a predawn barrage of rockets from Gaza, triggering sirens across much of southern and central Israel but causing no injuries.

Israel launched an aerial offensive in Gaza on July 8 and later sent ground troops into the enclave in a campaign to halt Palestinian rocket fire and destroy the tunnels used by militants.

Few had expected Saturday’s lull to change the course of the conflict.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told soldiers manning an antimissile battery late Friday to be prepared for a “significant expansion” of the ground operation in Gaza “very soon.”

Israel’s security cabinet on Friday rejected a draft proposal for a weeklong cease-fire. An Israeli official said no formal proposal had been put forward.

Mike Herzog, a former Israeli peace negotiator familiar with the government’s thinking, said the proposal would have given Hamas much of what it wanted—including eased Israeli and Egyptian restrictions along Gaza’s borders and a release of Palestinian prisoners—before addressing Israel’s demands to demilitarize Gaza.

“The proposal was unbalanced,” he said, emphasizing that it was a work in progress.

Mr. Kerry, with Egypt and the United Nations, has been promoting a one-week cease-fire as a bridge to a more formal halt to the hostilities and negotiation over the future of Gaza. “We are hopeful that can happen,” Mr. Kerry said Saturday before meeting in Paris with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey—his interlocutors with Hamas. The three diplomats met earlier with the foreign ministers of France, Italy, the U.K. and Germany to discuss Gaza, and Kerry said he would remain in contact with Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Kerry has also voiced concern over violence in the West Bank, where hundreds of Palestinians have rallied in the streets against Israel’s military operations in Gaza. Clashes with Israeli soldiers and settlers on Thursday and Friday have left nine Palestinians dead in the West Bank’s biggest demonstrations in years.

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Gaza must be demilitarized. Accept nothing else. Those tunnels are simply the last straw.

Let them the Palestinians demonstrate all they want. They already hate Israel as much they possibly can, so what is new?

I hold little hope with Turkey as interlocutor.  Erdogan is half-insane, full of delusions of grandeur and he despises Israel.