Sunday 17 December 2017

Gazans use ceasefire to restock supplies and assess devastating damage

Gaza residents used a 12-hour humanitarian ceasefire today to stock up on supplies and survey the devastation from nearly three weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas.

In the northern town of Beit Hanoun, the main road was impassable in parts due to the debris from the damaged homes. The town's hospital had been hit by a tank shell and power lines were down.

Israel and Hamas began the 12-hour pause in hostilities at 8am (0500 GMT) after intensive regional shuttle diplomacy by US Secretary of State John Kerry failed to produce a longer truce aimed at ending the fighting.

The temporary lull appeared unlikely to change the course of the current hostilities amid ominous signs that the war was spilling over into the West Bank and a warning by Israel's defence minister that it might soon expand its Gaza ground operation "significantly".

The Israeli military said its troops "shall respond if terrorists choose to exploit" the lull to attack Israeli soldiers or civilians. The military also said "operational activities to locate and neutralise tunnels in the Gaza Strip will continue".

Previous humanitarian ceasefires have been cut short by a resumption of fighting, but today's pause appeared to be holding, as residents returned to the streets and packed into banks and grocery stores.

Israel launched a major aerial offensive in Gaza on July 8 and later sent ground troops into the Hamas-ruled territory in a bid to halt Palestinian rocket fire and destroy a vast network of cross-border tunnels used by militants to stage attacks.

Nearly 900 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed over the past 18 days. Israel says it is doing its utmost to prevent civilian casualties and blames Hamas for putting them in harm's way. Israel has lost 37 soldiers and two citizens and a Thai worker has been killed.

The lull was agreed upon by both sides after Mr Kerry failed to broker a weekl-ong truce as a first step toward a broader deal.

"We are looking for a long ceasefire, not only 12 hours," said Gaza resident Mohammad Abu Shaaban. "We hope the ceasefire will continue and not to return back to the killing and destruction."

Israel wants more time to destroy tunnels and rocket launching sites in Gaza, while the territory's Hamas rulers want international guarantees that an Israeli and Egyptian border blockade will be lifted.

The Israeli government has also begun suggesting that Gaza be demilitarised as a condition for a permanent ceasefire so that Hamas cannot rearm itself ahead of yet another round of fighting. The current war is the third in Gaza in just over five years.

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