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Gaza crisis: 72-hour fragile ceasefire begins

Last updated on: August 05, 2014 15:29 IST

An uneasy 72-hour ceasefire brokered by Egypt between Israel and the Palestinian militant groups began on Tuesday morning after a month of fighting, with Hamas firing a salvo of long-range rockets minutes before the truce, calling them revenge for Israel's "massacres".

Minutes before the ceasefire took hold at 8 a.m. (local time), Hamas fired a barrage of long-range rockets, calling them revenge for Israel's "massacres", referring to the killing of nearly 1,900 Palestinians, mostly civilians.

Sirens went off in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sdot HaNegev, Kiryat Malachi, Rehovot, Rishon Lezion, Gedera, Lod, Ramle, and in Ma'ale Adumim which is in east of Jerusalem.

Six of the 17 rockets fired from Gaza were intercepted by the anti-missile Iron Dome defence system, the army said.

The rockets caused minor damages but no injuries.

Shrapnel landed in the greater Jerusalem area indicating an Iron Dome interception over the area, security sources said.

The Israeli forces responded with artillery fire, but the guns fell silent just before the truce came into effect.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces said that troops operating in Gaza were being pulled out completely but reserves have not been released from service.

"The Israel Defense Forces will be redeployed in defensive positions outside the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions," Lt Col Peter Lerner said.

"The IDF is prepared to retaliate to any move by Hamas to break the truce," he added.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet ministers late last night that he had agreed to a three-day ceasefire with Hamas starting Tuesday morning.

A spokesperson for Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls the Gaza Strip, simultaneously announced just after midnight that the militant factions had also decided to accept the initiative which stipulates that further discussions will take place in Cairo to try and reach a permanent agreement.

Officials at the Gaza Ministry of Health said that the four-week conflict has killed about 1,880 Palestinians -- most of them civilians. Some 67 Israelis, all but three of them soldiers, have also died.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement on Tuesday calling for both parties to respect the terms of the truce.

Ban urged both sides to meet in Cairo and start talks for a long-term cease-fire agreement "as soon as possible."

It was not immediately clear as to when an Israeli delegation would head to Cairo for indirect talks on a long-term agreement. Israel had refused to send a delegation on Sunday after the last attempt to broker a ceasefire broke down.      

Political sources in Jerusalem on Monday said that Israel supports the Egyptian initiative.

"Israel wanted a ceasefire without preconditions and today the tunnel demolition was completed," they said, projecting that one of Israel's main concerns had been addressed.

The sources added that Israel would remain "prepared for the possibility that the ceasefire would be broken."

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry had announced the ceasefire initiative in a statement yesterday, saying "Out of concern for innocent lives and to prevent further bloodshed, Egypt calls on Israel and the Palestinian Authority and all the Palestinian factions to cease fire for a renewable period of 72 hours starting at 8 am".

Earlier, Azzam al-Ahmed, head of the Palestinian delegation to the Cairo talks on a ceasefire formula, confirmed that a truce would go into effect Tuesday morning.

Al-Ahmed, a senior leader of Hamas' rival faction, Fatah, said that the ceasefire would be for 72-hours during which Israel and the Palestinian factions would hold indirect talks in Cairo about consolidating the truce.

The Palestinian delegation had also presented a joint set of demands to the Egyptians late on Sunday calling for an immediate ceasefire and a lifting of the siege on the Gaza Strip, in addition to the reopening of all border crossings.

They sought international assurances that Israel would refrain from launching military attacks, and for UN assistance in rebuilding the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians also demanded an airport and seaport in addition to free passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, demands dismissed by Israel as "completely unrealistic."

A 72-hour ceasefire brokered last week by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Ban collapsed 90 minutes after it began.

UNRWA, the UN agency that works with Palestinian refugees, warned against the possibility of an outbreak of epidemic in Gaza if the international community doesn't immediately take adequate measures to restore basic facilities to people.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday welcomed a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian factions brokered by Egypt, urging both the parties to soon commence talks in Cairo on a durable ceasefire and to change the "tragic status quo" in the Gaza Strip.

Ban commended the parties for committing to the ceasefire of 72 hours that began this morning and called on them to abide by it, according to a statement issued by his spokesperson.

He urged the parties to exercise the "utmost restraint".

"The Secretary-General urges the parties to commence, as soon as possible, talks in Cairo on a durable ceasefire and the underlying issues," the statement said, adding that the UN chief welcomes the proactive engagement of the Palestinian delegation under the leadership of Palestinian Authrioty President Mahmoud Abbas.

"Such talks are the only way to sustainably stop the violence, which has cost far too many lives, and to change the untenable and tragic status quo in Gaza," he said assuring the United Nations' support to these efforts.

Image: Israeli soldiers return from Gaza after a three-day truce was announced. Photograph: Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

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