Last updated: July 31, 2014 11:32 pm

US and UN secure 72-hour Gaza ceasefire

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A member of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society points at smoke rising from a building after an Israeli strike on Rafah in southern Gaza on Thursday©AFP

A member of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society points at smoke rising from a building after an Israeli strike on Rafah in southern Gaza on Thursday

The US and the UN announced on Thursday evening a 72-hour ceasefire in Gaza and a new round of negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian representatives in Egypt after three weeks of fighting which has claimed nearly 1500 lives.

US secretary of state John Kerry and Ban Ki-Moon, secretary-general of the UN, said in a statement that an “unconditional humanitarian ceasefire” had been agreed by all parties and would begin at 8am local time on Friday.

The announcement comes after the White House intensified pressure on Israel over the loss of civilian life in Gaza, while Israel promised to keep trying to destroy tunnels built by Hamas even if there were a ceasefire.

The statement said that the pause in fighting would give people in Gaza the chance to “bury the dead, take care of the injured, and restock food supplies”, as well as repairing vital infrastructure.

The US and UN said that negotiations would start “immediately” in Cairo to try and find a “durable ceasefire”, restoring Egypt’s position as a central player in the diplomacy around the conflict. The talks would include Israel and “Palestinian delegations”, indicating that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank could have a role.

Later on Thursday Mr Kerry said that the parties are expected to cease all offensive military activities, and neither side will advance beyond its current locations. “Israel will be able to continue its defensive operations for those tunnels that are behind its lines, and the Palestinians will be able to receive food, medicine, and additional humanitarian assistance.”

He described the ceasefire as “precious time” and said: “It is a lull of opportunity, a moment for the sides and the different factions to be able to come together with the state of Israel in an effort to try to address ways to find a sustainable ceasefire and then, obviously, ultimately, over a longer period of time, address the underlying issues.”

“Obviously, while we are grateful that the violence and the bloodshed has the opportunity to stop for more than 24 hours, it is up to the parties – all of them – to take advantage of this moment. There are no guarantees.”

The ceasefire announcement came hours after the White House condemned the shelling of a UN facility in Gaza by the Israeli military as “totally indefensible”. Josh Earnest, White House spokesman, said there was little doubt that the artillery that hit the school on Wednesday had been fired by Israel.

In the strongest criticism from the Obama administration since the start of the conflict three weeks ago, Mr Earnest said the Israeli government was not doing enough to minimise the risks to civilians.

“It is clear that we need our allies in Israel to do more to live up to the high standards they have set themselves,” he said.

At least 15 civilians sheltering from the conflict were killed when Israel shelled the school in Jabalya, northern Gaza. Mr Ban described the shelling as a “reprehensible attack”.

Earlier on Thursday, Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would continue its operation to destroy tunnels built by Hamas under the Gaza border even if a ceasefire was agreed.

The Israeli prime minister said: “We are determined to complete this mission, with or without a ceasefire, and therefore I will not agree to any proposal that does not allow the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] to complete this work, which is important for the security of Israel’s citizens.”

Speaking before a cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, he added: “These tunnels would have enabled Hamas to abduct and murder civilians and soldiers via simultaneous attacks from many tunnels that penetrate our territory. We are now dismantling this ability.”

Mr Netanyahu said the IDF was continuing to deliver “harsh blows” and to “act with full force across the Gaza Strip”, where rising civilian deaths are fuelling international efforts to press Israel and Hamas to agree a lasting truce.

Israel began Operation Protective Edge, its military assault on Hamas in Gaza, as an air campaign on July 7. It then sent ground troops into Gaza on July 17 to destroy what it describes as extensive tunnel systems used by militants to conduct military operations.

Hamas militants emerged this week from a tunnel near a military post inside Israel and killed five Israeli soldiers, later releasing a video of the attack.

International pressure to end the war is mounting. About 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in the 24-day-old conflict, and at least 56 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians.

The UN’s senior human rights official on Thursday accused both sides in the conflict of war crimes.

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in Geneva that by placing and firing rockets within heavily populated areas, Israel and Hamas were committing “a violation of international humanitarian law, therefore a war crime”.

Egypt, which borders Gaza, is leading efforts to broker a permanent ceasefire that would have the support of all Palestinian factions, including Hamas. Israel is demanding that Hamas and other militant groups disarm as part of any peace plan. Hamas wants Israel and Egypt to lift their blockade on trade and the movement of people in and out of Gaza.

The Save the Children charity said that some hospitals in Gaza had warned they had enough fuel to run power generators for only four to five more days. After Israeli air strikes on Gaza’s sole power plant, most residents are receiving electricity for two hours a day at most.

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