End violence for children, Pope tells warring sides
Truce ends after Israel say Hamas broke own ceasefire
Pope Francis waded into the war in Gaza yesterday by appealing to both sides to urgently end the conflict for the sake of hundreds of children who he said were being killed and maimed.
"Stop, please stop! I beg you with all my heart," he said in a trembling voice to a massed gathering of pilgrims at the Vatican, as violence in the Gaza Strip continued despite two failed temporary ceasefires.
"I think of the children, who are robbed of the hope of a dignified life, of a future. Dead children, wounded children, mutilated children, orphans, children who, for toys, have the debris of war. Children who do not know how to smile," the Pope said in an emotive plea that marked the 100th anniversary of the First World War and was also directed to conflicts in Iraq and Ukraine.
US President Barack Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and also stressed the need for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, the White House said.
Urging a permanent end to hostilities on the basis of the 2012 ceasefire agreement, Mr Obama added that "ultimately, any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarisation of Gaza".
The Pope's intervention – just two months after a high-profile visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank – came as UNICEF issued fresh figures showing that the number of children, some as young as three months, killed in the 20-day Gaza war had climbed to 218. At least 1,516 Palestinian children had been injured as of Saturday, UNICEF said.
It was the Argentinian pontiff's second public appeal for peace in Gaza after he telephoned Shimon Peres, who stepped down last week as Israel's president, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, to urge them to use their authority to stop the fighting.
His latest attempt came on a day that saw Gaza's hopes of a respite from nearly three weeks of violence dashed when Israel ended a truce and Hamas called a ceasefire, only to break it almost immediately.
Within minutes of Israel announcing that it would stop observing a "humanitarian" ceasefire because of Hamas rocket attacks, a thunderous artillery barrage broke over the tiny coastal territory. Ten more people were reported killed in Israeli strikes, Gaza health sources said, bringing the number of Palestinian dead to 1,058.
One hundred and forty-seven bodies were pulled from the rubble of wrecked buildings during Saturday's truce. Some 43 Israeli soldiers have died, along with three civilians in Israel.
Israeli forces appeared to be focusing their fire on the eastern suburbs of Gaza City, perhaps with the aim of advancing further into even more densely populated areas. The bombardment sent pillars of black smoke rising into the sky.
Already, Israel has carved out a two-mile buffer zone along the territory's northern and eastern borders, covering 44pc of Gaza's surface area. This has caused 173,000 Palestinians – almost 10pc of the population – to flee their homes and seek shelter in UN properties.
The number of refugees would almost certainly soar further if Israeli troops and tanks strike deeper into Gaza.
Israel had announced a "humanitarian" ceasefire from 8am until 8pm on Saturday, later extended until midnight. They then decided to renew the pause for another 24 hours until midnight yesterday.
But Hamas said that it had not agreed to any extension – and it launched rockets at the Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Tel Aviv on Saturday night and yesterday morning. At first, Israeli forces held fire and the political leadership opted to renew the truce nonetheless.
But at 10am yesterday, an Israeli army spokesman said Israel's "aerial, naval and ground activity" would resume "following Hamas's incessant rocket fire throughout the humanitarian window". The artillery bombardment began almost instantly, followed by a series of air strikes on targets close to Gaza's Mediterranean shore.
Hamas then called a 24-hour ceasefire of its own, starting at 2pm. However, Israel said that after this deadline rockets were fired towards Ashqelon and the Negev region, where a house was destroyed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
David Blair and Robert Tait