GAZA CITY, July 17 – Israel and Hamas were Thursday to observe a five-hour humanitarian ceasefire after nine days of fighting, as the army said it had foiled an “infiltration” into southern Israel by Gaza militants.
The two sides agreed following a UN request that they would suspend military action from 0700 GMT to 1200 GMT, after an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire Tuesday fell through.
Hostilities continued ahead of the truce, with new Israeli air strikes taking the Palestinian toll since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 to 227 killed and 1,678 wounded, Gaza medical services said.
Minutes before the truce went into effect, Israeli tank fire hit a house in southern Gazakilling three people, medics said.
Emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said four other people were seriously wounded in the attack on the house in Rafah.
Hamas meanwhile continued its rocket fire into Israel and, according to the Israeli army, a group of militants early in the morning infiltrated the Jewish state on Gaza’s southern border but were sent scurrying by an air strike.
“This morning our forces successfully foiled a terror attack,” army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner told journalists in a telephone briefing.
Thirteen militants emerged from a tunnel under the southern Gaza border, and were headed towards Sufa kibbutz, a small community just over a kilometre (mile) away, when they were spotted, Lerner said.
Israel forces killed at least one of the militants in an air raid, he said, leaving the rest rushing back towards the tunnel.
The army said Israel had conducted at least 37 raids overnight on Gaza, while seven rockets were fired from the Strip, four of which landed in fields and the rest were intercepted by Israel’s missile defences.
Since July 8, militants have fired more than 1,200 rockets at Israel. They claimed their first Israeli life on Tuesday.
– Humanitarian truce –
The Israeli army announced it would halt its bombardment of Gaza from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm (0700 to 1200 GMT) Thursday, following the UN request for a humanitarian truce.
Hamas later followed suit.
But a senior UN official said that it was unlikely any new aid would reach Gaza.
“The Kerem Shalom crossing is closed today for security reasons, aid can’t come through Erez — it’s not big enough — so no new aid is going to enter Gaza today,” the official said, referring respectively to Gaza’s southern goods crossing and northern personnel border.
Instead, the truce would allow people who have fled their homes to go back to collect supplies from them, and help the UN get to areas it could not reach before, the official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Hamas, the Islamist movement that is the main power in Gaza, has rejected initial Egyptian efforts for a full ceasefire, saying it had not been included in the discussions.
But in Cairo on Wednesday, a Hamas official met Egyptian leaders and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas arrived to join the diplomatic efforts.
Abbas was to travel Thursday to Ankara to pursue truce efforts.
Israeli news website NRG said that “Israeli representatives” would also join the Cairo deliberations.
US President Barack Obama on Wednesday backed Egypt’s efforts to broker a ceasefire, offering Washington’s full diplomatic support.
“Over the next 24 hours, we’ll continue to stay in close contact with our friends and parties in the region, and we will use all of our diplomatic resources and relationships to support efforts of closing a deal on a ceasefire,” he said.
– ‘No safe place’ –
A Gaza-based human rights group says more than 80 percent of Palestinian casualties are civilians.
On Wednesday, four children died on the Gaza seashore and several people were wounded in an apparent Israeli naval bombardment, medics said.
Several hours after the strikes, the Israeli military described the deaths as “tragic” and said it was investigating the incident.
“Based on preliminary results, the target of this strike was Hamas terrorist operatives,” the military said in a statement.
“The reported civilian casualties from this strike are a tragic outcome.”