By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell
Hamas Islamist militants have agreed to a 24-hour humanitarian truce in their conflict with Israel in the Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the group said on Sunday, hours after fighting between the sides resumed.
“It has been agreed among resistance factions to endorse a 24-hour humanitarian calm,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters, saying the calm should start at 2.00 p.m. (1100 GMT).
An Israeli official said the truce was being reviewed.
However, as 2.00 p.m. came and went, the sound of heavy Israeli shelling could be heard within Gaza and sirens sounded in Israeli communities near the border area, suggesting Palestinian militants had fired missiles at them.
Israel had called off its own 24-hour truce earlier in the day after Hamas launched rockets into southern and central Israel, and Palestinian medics said at least 10 people had died in the wave of subsequent strikes that swept Gaza.
Some 1,060 Palestinians, mainly civilians and including many children, have been killed in the 20-day conflict. Israel says 43 of its soldiers have died, along with three civilians killed by rocket and mortar fire out of the Mediterranean enclave.
Israel and the Hamas Islamists who control Gaza had agreed to a 12-hour ceasefire on Saturday to allow Palestinians to stock up on supplies and retrieve bodies from under the rubble.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet decided to extend the quiet until midnight on Sunday, on condition that its forces could continue to track down and destroy militant tunnels that criss-cross the Gaza border.
After initially rejecting the extension, Hamas spokesman Abu Zuhri said Hamas had accepted a U.N. truce request on Sunday in light of the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which is expected to start in the next couple of days.
Netanyahu was due to convene his cabinet later on Sunday to decide how to move forward, and at least one senior minister said Israel must step up its offensive.
“After what we saw this morning, it is clear we need to resume fighting with even greater force,” Communications Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio.
Israel launched its Gaza offensive on July 8 to halt rocket attacks by Hamas and its allies, which have struggled under an Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade on Gaza and were angered by a crackdown on their supporters in the nearby occupied West Bank.
After aerial and naval bombardment failed to quell the outgunned guerrillas, Israel poured ground forces into the Gaza Strip 10 days later, looking to knock out Hamas’s rocket stores and destroy the vast network of tunnels.
Diplomatic efforts led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to end the 20-day conflict have shown little sign of progress. Israel and Hamas have set conditions that appear irreconcilable.
Hamas wants an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza before agreeing to halt hostilities. Israel has signalled it could make concessions toward that end, but only if Gaza’s militant groups are stripped of their weapons.
“Hamas must be permanently stripped of its missiles and tunnels in a supervised manner,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said, “In return we will agree to a host of economic alleviations,” the security cabinet member said on Facebook.
Kerry flew back to Washington overnight after meeting in Paris with foreign ministers of France, Italy, Britain, Germany, Turkey and Qatar, with no sign of progress.
The main U.N. agency in Gaza, UNRWA, said 167,269 displaced Palestinians have taken shelter in the organisation’s schools and buildings, following repeated calls by Israel for civilians to evacuate whole neighbourhoods ahead of military operations.
During the lull in fighting inside Gaza on Saturday, residents flooded into the streets to discover scenes of massive destruction in some areas, including Beit Hanoun in the north and Shejaia in the east.
Israel hopes that the images of widespread desolation would persuade Gazans to put pressure on Hamas to stop the fighting for fear of yet more devastation.
The Israeli military says its forces have uncovered more than 30 tunnels in Gaza, with some of the burrows reaching into Israeli territory and designed to launch surprise attacks on Jewish communities along the border.
The military said on Sunday it found a tunnel that led directly into the dining room of an Israeli kibbutz.
Other underground passages, the military says, serve as weapons caches and Hamas bunkers. One official said troops had found it easier to operate during the truce as the immediate threat to their safety was diminished.
The Gaza turmoil has stoked tensions amongst Palestinians in mainly Arab East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
Medics said eight Palestinians were killed on Friday in incidents near the West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron – the sort of death toll reminiscent of previous uprisings against Israel’s prolonged military rule there.
The violence has sparked protests outside the region.
Demonstrators in London marched from the Israeli embassy to the House of Parliament in Whitehall, blocking traffic throughout the West End. French police clashed with pro-Palestinian protesters defied a ban by authorities to march in central Paris