Resumption of Gaza violence after pause

Militants had fired mortars into Israel during respite as Israelis desisted from air strikes

A Palestinian women buys from a butcher at a street market in Gaza City on Thursday. Daily life resumed for a short while during a five-hour  ceasefire between Israel and Gaza requested by the United Nations. Photograph: Oliver Weiken/EPA

A Palestinian women buys from a butcher at a street market in Gaza City on Thursday. Daily life resumed for a short while during a five-hour ceasefire between Israel and Gaza requested by the United Nations. Photograph: Oliver Weiken/EPA

Thu, Jul 17, 2014, 23:17

Israel began a ground offensive against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip last night, extending its 10-day-old “Operation Protective Edge”, following a day of ceasefire contacts.

Despite the talks in Cairo, the violence in Gaza resumed in the afternoon following a five-hour “humanitarian pause” aimed at giving civilians an opportunity to stock up on food without the fear of bomb attacks.

Israeli civilians, who had been running to bomb shelters for the past 10 days, had welcomed the respite.

During the five-hour period militant groups had fired three mortar bombs into Israel but withheld rocket fire while the Israelis held back from carrying out air strikes. Palestinian sources have claimed that Israel violated the truce by firing into southern Gaza.

Israeli officials said Binyamin Netanyahu’s government had agreed to the pause not only for humanitarian reasons, but also to allow Gaza militant leaders emerge from hiding and see first-hand the level of destruction, hoping this would encourage them to back a truce. Four children were reported killed in Israeli airstrikes yesterday, including three deaths in a single strike on a building in the east of the city in the evening. More than 230 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli air and naval strikes since the current conflict began on July 8th. Militant rockets have killed one Israeli.

The United Nations aid agency Unrwa said it had discovered 20 rockets hidden in one of its vacant schools in Gaza and “strongly condemned” whichever militant group had placed them there.

Open all crossings

Egyptian officials had been involved in intensive contacts with both sides in Cairo in an effort to finalise the details of a ceasefire package. Israel had shown a willingness to ease the economic restrictions in Gaza, including the opening of all crossings on the Gaza-Israel border and the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

However, it had rejected Hamas’s demand for access to the Al-Aqsa mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount for Gaza residents and the release of Hamas prisoners recently arrested in the West Bank, saying the issue of re-releasing the prisoners was “not up for discussion” since it would damage Israeli security.

In Gaza city, Hamas spokesman Moushir al-Masri had told The Irish Times the group was ready to call a ceasefire if its conditions were met.

“We’re prepared for any outcome,” Mr al-Masri said. “If they want to escalate, we’re ready. If they want a ceasefire, we’re ready. Until then we’ll continue our legitimate resistance, which is the right of all people under occupation.”

The spokesman confirmed that talks “involving Arab countries, including Egypt” had been taking place and confirmed that Hamas had not been informed of a previous Egyptian ceasefire proposal earlier this week before it was reported in the media.

Tunnel plan

Just before dawn yesterday, before the humanitarian ceasefire had gone into effect, Israeli troops shot and killed eight militants who had entered Israel via a tunnel at the southern tip of the Gaza Strip. Thirteen heavily armed gunmen had emerged from the tunnel close to two kibbutzim. Israel believed they were planning a spectacular attack, including the kidnapping of Israeli troops and/or civilians, to give Hamas a major propaganda victory just ahead of a possible ceasefire.

Hamas claimed responsibility for the infiltration, saying that special forces from Hamas’s military wing had penetrated enemy lines and successfully completed their mission before returning safely to Gaza via the tunnel.

It was reported in Israel that Israeli intelligence had been aware of such an attack being planned in the area and the gunmen were monitored emerging from the tunnel and walking towards a staging point where some began to make their way to their target, while others hunkered down. At this point an aerial missile strike was ordered, followed by an attack from troops on the ground. Five militants managed to escape back into the tunnel. Israel believes that similar attack tunnels exist in various stages of construction.

The European Union has said Israel has a right to protect itself against missiles from Gaza, but called on the army to act “proportionately” and to avoid civilian casualties.