Israel extends Gaza Strip cease fire to 24 hours

By KARIN LAUB and IAN DEITCH Associated Press Published:

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip -- A government official says Israel's Cabinet has decided to extend a humanitarian cease-fire for 24 hours, but that troops will respond to any fire from Gaza.

The official wrote in a text message that the truce would be extended until midnight tonight. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists.

He says Israel also will continue to demolish Hamas military tunnels during the period of lull.

Earlier, Hamas had rejected a four-hour extension of Saturday's initial 12-hour truce, and Gaza militants said they fired several dozen rockets after rejecting Israel's offer to extend a 12-hour humanitarian cease-fire by four hours, casting new doubt on international efforts to broker an end to 19 days of fighting.

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.

There was no immediate Israeli retaliation for the rocket fire.

In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and European foreign ministers met earlier Saturday to find ways to transform Saturday's initial 12-hour lull into a sustainable truce.

In Gaza, thousands of residents who fled the violence streamed back to devastated border areas during the cease-fire 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.

More than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed and more than 6,000 have been wounded over the past 19 days, Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. 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, al-Kidra said.

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.

"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 cross-border tunnels used for attacks.

Later Saturday, Israel decided to extend the 12-hour lull by four more hours, until midnight (2100 GMT) Saturday. However, Israel set its own terms for the extended truce, saying it would continue to demolish Hamas military tunnels.

The Israeli military said that through Saturday's lull, troops uncovered four more tunnel shafts.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri later said that the group rejected the four-hour extension. Shortly after that, Hamas claimed responsibility for firing five rockets at Israel, including two at Tel Aviv. The Israeli military said three rockets fell in southern Israel.

Al-Kidra said that a 36-year-old Palestinian man was killed by a sniper near the central Gaza town of Deir el-Balah shortly after the 12-hour truce ended.

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 U.N. 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.

Hamas has said it would not halt fire until it won guarantees that the border blockade, enforced by Israel and Egypt, would be lifted.

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

Hamas had seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, triggering the Gaza blockade by Israel and Egypt. However, Abbas, who heads the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, 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 cease-fire.

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."

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