Israel and Hamas agree three-day truce

Delegations will immediately travel to Cairo for talks on a durable ceasefire

Israeli firefighters try to extinguish a burning car after a rocket fired from Gaza landed directly in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the southern town of Kiryat Gat, Israel. Photograph: EPA

Israeli firefighters try to extinguish a burning car after a rocket fired from Gaza landed directly in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the southern town of Kiryat Gat, Israel. Photograph: EPA

Fri, Aug 1, 2014, 01:00

Israel and Hamas agreed to an unconditional 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire to begin at 8am local time today, said US secretary of State John Kerry and UN general secretary Ban Ki-Moon last night in a joint statement.

Israeli and Palestinian delegations will immediately travel to Cairo for negotiations with the Egyptian government to reach a durable ceasefire, the statement said. Mr Kerry was in New Delhi when he made the announcement.

The move reflected growing international frustration with the mounting number of civilian casualties – 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 59 Israelis have been killed so far – and follow failed efforts by Egypt to broker a truce.

White House criticism

The White House yesterday had pointed the finger of blame at Israel for the shelling of a United Nations school cum shelter in Gaza on Wednesday, describing the Israeli attack as “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible.”

In the administration’s strongest criticism of Israel’s offensive in Gaza, President Obama’s spokesman Josh Earnest said there “does not appear there’s a lot of doubt about whose artillery was involved”.

The White House initially condemned the shelling of the school after the attack, which, the UN has said, killed at least 19 people, but it did not assign responsibility for the incident.

Mr Earnest said yesterday that “all evidence points to Israeli artillery as the cause”. “The shelling of a UN facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible,” he said.

The EU also condemned the shelling of the UN-operated school and a market in the Gaza city neighbourhood of Shejaia.

“It is unacceptable that innocent displaced civilians, who were taking shelter in designated UN areas after being called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes, have been killed,” the EU said, calling for an immediate investigation.

The Israeli army said it was still investigating the incidents, but claimed its forces fired in response to mortar shells fired by militants close to the school.

Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, accused both sides of committing war crimes.

Yesterday Israel called up another 16,000 reservists after some of the fiercest days of fighting in the 25-day-old war.

It continued to pound targets from air, sea and land, and troops engaged militants in Gaza city neighbourhoods and areas that had been spared much of the violence.

Militants fired scores of rockets at southern and central Israel.

However, there were no signs that the army was contemplating a major offensive into Gaza city or towards the Mediterranean shore, an act that would have caused a significant increase in the casualty figures on both sides.

Generals had warned that “treading water”, keeping the Israeli forces in more or less static positions, handed the advantage to militant fighters, and urged Israel to maintain the element of surprise.

Earlier yesterday Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu had made it clear that Israel would not accept a truce that prevented its troops destroying Hamas cross-border tunnels.

“Our forces are making impressive gains in the field. The operation is moving ahead at full speed,” he said.

“So far we have neutralised dozens of terror tunnels and we are determined to complete this mission, with or without a ceasefire. These gains are only the first step in the demilitarisation of Gaza, he said.