Israel Agrees to Extension of Cease-Fire, but Hamas Balks

JERUSALEM — Israel’s top ministers decided Saturday night to extend a humanitarian halt to hostilities in the Gaza Strip for 24 hours but said their troops would continue to operate to destroy tunnels from Gaza into its territory during Sunday’s pause.

The decision came despite continued fire from Gaza into Israel during Israel’s initial four-hour extension of a 12-hour humanitarian pause on Saturday that both sides had agreed to at the request of the United Nations.

Three mortars landed in open areas near Gaza just as the original lull was expiring at 8 p.m. Before midnight, more than a dozen rockets were fired at Israel, four of them intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system.


A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, rejected the expansion of the pause until midnight Sunday. “Any humanitarian cease-fire that doesn’t secure withdrawal of occupation soldiers from inside Gaza’s border, allow citizens back into homes and secure the evacuation of injuries is unacceptable,’’ Zuhri said. Earlier, Hamas had taken credit for sending two rockets toward Tel Aviv.

The Israeli military had made clear it would not withdraw from what it called “defensive positions’’ during the lull, and on Saturday night warned Gaza residents “not to return to previously evacuated areas.’’

“Those who ignore these warnings are placing themselves at risk and are jeopardizing their own safety,’’ the military said in a statement.

In announcing the 24-hour extension just before midnight Saturday, a senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “Obviously our soldiers can protect themselves if they are attacked, and obviously we will continue to work on the tunnels,’’ an extensive network built by Hamas to sneak fighters into Israel.

The Israeli military said it had found four new tunnel shafts during Saturday’s pause. Since the ground operation began July 17, it said, it has uncovered 31 tunnels and destroyed 15 of them.

Families across the Gaza Strip emerged from shelters and returned to their homes during Saturday’s 12-hour cease-fire to survey the damage to their neighborhoods, collect belongings and help dig bodies from the rubble.


As the cease-fire expired at 8 p.m., Israel agreed to continue the lull for four hours, until midnight, while its security cabinet met to consider the U.N. request for a 24-hour extension, which it ultimately accepted.

But even as the ministers were meeting, sirens signaling incoming rockets continued to sound over central and southern cities.

Secretary of State John Kerry, meeting in Paris with Arab and European foreign ministers, had pressed for an extension of the 12-hour humanitarian pause that both sides would accept. He repeated his argument that any temporary truce needed to be followed by an enduring solution that would address the Palestinians’ desire to break free of the economic embargo of Gaza, as well as Israel’s security needs. Chief among those needs are a halt to rocket fire by Palestinian militants on Israeli cities and towns and the destruction of the tunnel network.

“I understand that Israel can’t have a cease-fire’’ in which “the tunnels are never going to be dealt with,’’ Kerry said. “The tunnels have to be dealt with. We understand that. We are working at that.’’

“By the same token, the Palestinians can’t have a cease-fire in which they think the status quo is going to stay,’’ he said. “Palestinians need to live with dignity, with some freedom, with goods that can come in and out, and they need a life that is free from the current restraints.’’

Kerry met with diplomats from Turkey, Qatar, Germany, Britain, and Italy, along with a representative of the European Union.


He later met separately with Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, the Qatari foreign minister, and Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister. Qatar and Turkey support Hamas and have served as intermediaries with Khaled Meshal, the group’s political head, who resides in Doha.

The secretary of state, who left Paris for Washington on Saturday night, seemed to be hoping that a succession of short truces strung together might yield enough latitude to begin unwinding the conflict.

Palestinians in Gaza got a taste of what that might look like during the cease-fire on Saturday.

Here in Beit Hanoun, a hard-hit town in northern Gaza, Akram Qassim, 53, stared in disbelief at a huge smoking crater strewn with rubble and twisted metal from an Israeli airstrike, all that remained of the three-story house he had shared with his two brothers and their families.

“I expected that maybe a shell had hit it and caused some damage,’’ Qassim said. “But this is an earthquake.’’

Four houses clustered nearby had also been reduced to piles of rubble; power lines that had been blown from their poles snaked across streets; and the air smelled of a dead horse lying in an empty lot.

“Are all these houses tunnels?’’ Qassim asked. “Is that dead horse a tunnel?’’

The truce also allowed Palestinians to dig bodies from the rubble. More than 100 were recovered from battle zones across Gaza on Saturday, including 21 members of one family, driving the total Palestinian death toll to more than 1,020.

Five more Israeli soldiers were also reported killed, bringing the death toll on the Israeli side to 43, including three civilians.

For Palestinians, the majority of the dead have been civilians. Palestinians see the war as a new case of Israeli aggression and believe that Israel has done little to protect civilians or their property from the devastation wrought by its airstrikes.

But Hamas is known to place weapons and fighters in residential neighborhoods and other places where civilians gather, including mosques.

In southern Israel, a rocket landed in an open field just as the cease-fire was starting at 8 a.m., but residents who had spent much of the last weeks sheltering in safe rooms ventured out cautiously throughout the day.

People stopped by beaches in Ashdod and Ashkelon for short visits, Israel Radio reported, and television news contrasted footage taken Saturday of crowded cafes with that from last week when all such establishments were empty.

“I was very hesitant, because we know who we’re dealing with,’’ a beachgoer identified only as Sigalit said in a radio interview. “In the end I decided to go out and see if people were around.’’

At Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, a barber came to give haircuts to wounded soldiers. In Maslul, a small community not far from a staging area for soldiers in the Gaza operation, residents had set up 10 barbecue grills to serve the troops, along with showers and even a karaoke corner, Israel Radio reported.

Elsewhere, volunteers helped farmers pick peppers from unguarded fields.

Israeli authorities said that during the initial cease-fire they were coordinating with international organizations to evacuate wounded Palestinians, distribute food and repair power lines and water pipes broken in battle.

As news of the pause spread through Gaza on Saturday via radio, phone calls, text messages and word of mouth, cars, horse carts and people on foot crowded the main road to Beit Hanoun.

Many spoke on cellphones with relatives elsewhere, sometimes breaking down or wailing when they received reports of their destroyed homes.

At one point, two men in black face masks and carrying assault rifles came walking from the opposite direction, suggesting that fighters were using the pause to change positions.

Realizing that the pause was only temporary, many families collected a few items from home to ease their continued displacement. Men strapped mattresses to the tops of cars and packed pillows and bottles of cooking gas in their trunks. One man salvaged a flat screen TV. A woman carried a garbage bag full of blankets and canned beans on her head.

“Bring a stretcher! Bring a stretcher!’’ yelled a man working with a group of medics and a bulldozer to remove bodies from a home that had been flattened in a recent airstrike.

“We have pulled out six so far and there are three left,’’ said Mohammed Nasser, who had relatives among the dead.

As the bulldozer dug, one of the dead was found with a Kalashnikov rifle at his side, suggesting that he — and perhaps the others — were fighters. Cries of “God is great!’’ erupted from the crowd as the body was carried to an ambulance.

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