JERUSALEM (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas meant to last at least three days and end nearly a month of fighting went into effect in the Gaza Strip Tuesday.
The truce came ahead of talks in Cairo aimed at brokering a deal that would prevent future cross-border violence.
The temporary cease-fire, agreed to by both sides, started at 8 a.m. (1 a.m. EDT) and was to last for 72 hours, during which Israel and Hamas are to hold indirect talks in the Egyptian capital.
Several hours after the halt began, no new violence had been reported by either side.
The fighting has claimed nearly 1,900 Palestinian lives – most of them civilians, Palestinian officials say. The war has also left 67 dead in Israel, all but three of them soldiers.
Previous international attempts to broker a temporary halt in the fighting failed.
The gaps between the sides are vast and the situation remains volatile — just minutes ahead of the start of the truce, shelling still echoed across Gaza.
Hamas wants Israel and Egypt to lift their seven-year-old Gaza border blockade. Israel wants Hamas to be disarmed.
Earlier Tuesday, the Israeli military announced all its ground troops were to be out of Gaza by the start of the new cease-fire. Military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the withdrawal was going forward after Israel completed the destruction of 32 cross-border tunnels that were built for Islamic militant attacks inside Israel.
During the course of the fighting, Israeli forces killed some 900 Palestinian militants, Lerner said.
Both sides signaled a rough road ahead, with an Israeli official expressing skepticism given previous cease-fire failures, and a Palestinian negotiator saying, “It’s going to be tough.”
A late burst of violence, including a deadly Palestinian attack in Jerusalem, continued bloodshed in Gaza and the reported execution of a number of suspected collaborators with Israel, served as reminders of the lingering risk of renewed violence.
“At 8 a.m. local time tomorrow a cease-fire starts and Israel will cease all military operations against terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. “Israel will honor the cease-fire and will be watching to see if Hamas does, too.”
But in case the peace doesn’t hold, combat troops remained perched on the border, ready to strike should Hamas to pull the trigger again, reported CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata.
Meanwhile, relations between the U.S. and Israel have grown more tense.
The Obama administration lashed out at Israel for a deadly attack near a U.N. school in Gaza Sunday that they called “horrifying” and “disgraceful.”
“That suspicion – that Hamas fighters are operating in the vicinity of innocent civilians – does not justify taking strikes that put the lives of those innocent civilians at risk,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stated.
Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., told CBS News that the White House did not have all the facts on that incident.
“They do not know the facts, it was a rush to judgment,” Dermer told CBS News.
Dermer added that Israel listens very carefully to what President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have to say.
“We’re in alignment 99 percent of the time, and when we don’t agree on something that one percent of the time, we work it out as allies work it out,” Dermer told CBS News.
The war broke out on July 8 when Israel launched an air offensive in response to weeks of heavy rocket fire out of Hamas-controlled Gaza. It expanded the operation on July 17 by sending in ground forces in what it described as a mission to destroy a network of tunnels used to stage attacks. Israel says the last of the tunnels has nearly been destroyed.
The war has taken nearly 1,900 Palestinian lives, most of them civilians caught in fighting inside Gaza’s crowded urban landscape, according to Hamas medical officials. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers have also died, as well as two Israeli civilians and a Thai laborer who worked in Israel. The heavy death toll has eclipsed that of previous rounds of fighting in 2009 and 2012.
A delegation of Palestinian officials from various factions, including Hamas, has been negotiating with Egypt in recent days. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the group had accepted the plan.
“It’s clear now that the interest of all parties is to have a cease-fire,” said Bassam Salhi, a member of the Palestinian delegation. “It’s going to be tough negotiations because Israel has demands too. We don’t have any guarantees the siege will be removed.”
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki late Monday said the U.S. strongly supports the latest cease-fire proposal and urges “both parties to respect it completely.” A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he urged the parties to begin talks as soon as possible in Cairo on a durable cease-fire “and the underlying issues.”
Hamas is seeking a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, an end to an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the territory, the release of Hamas prisoners held by Israel and international assistance in the reconstruction of Gaza.
Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to its destruction, from arming. But the Palestinians and members of the international community have criticized the blockade as collective punishment. The blockade, known to the Palestinians as “the siege,” has ground Gaza’s economy to a standstill.
Israel has demanded that Gaza become “demilitarized,” requiring the unlikely cooperation of Hamas in giving up its significant arsenal.
“We will be putting first on our agenda preventing Hamas from rearming,” Regev said. “Ultimately the Palestinians have a written commitment that Gaza should be demilitarized and it’s time the international community held them to that commitment.”
Israel had been signaling in recent days that it was winding down its military campaign. On Sunday, it withdrew most of its ground forces from Gaza.
In addition, Israel declared a seven-hour pause Monday in its air campaign for what it called a “window” to allow much-needed humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Supermarkets were open for business and more cars were on the streets than during any of the short-lived cease-fires since the war began. Fresh fruits and vegetables were available in outdoor markets.
Despite a drop in military activity, Israel still attacked 38 targets, though well below the levels of recent days.
At least 20 people were killed Monday, including three children – an 8-year-old girl in the Shati refugee camp and a 12-year-old boy and his 5-year-old sister in the southern border town of Rafah, according to Palestinian medical officials. Still, that was far below the levels during the heaviest fighting.
Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, disputed Palestinian claims that the vast majority of the dead were civilians.
“We estimate that between 700 and 900 terrorists were killed in direct contact with Israeli soldiers,” he told Channel 2 TV. “That’s a number that could rise because there were many terrorists inside the tunnels that were probably killed when the tunnels were blown up.”
As the fighting appeared to be tapering off, a Palestinian website close to the Hamas internal security service in Gaza said an unspecified number of Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel were executed.
It said the alleged collaborators were caught “red-handed” providing information to Israel, including details on certain houses and alerts about planned ambushes. “The resistance will show no mercy to anyone tempted to provide information to the enemy,” the al-Majad website said.
In Jerusalem, an assault carried out with a construction vehicle served as another reminder of the tense climate.
Israeli TV stations broadcast a series of amateur videos of the attack, in which a Palestinian man used the front shovel of a construction excavator to ram a bus and tip it over.
Police said a man who worked at the site was run over and killed by the construction vehicle. He was identified as a 29-year-old religious inspector whose job was to ensure that ancient graves were not damaged by construction work.
A policeman who happened to be in the area shot the driver, who was identified as a resident of a Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem. The man’s uncle, Hisham Jaabis, said the incident was a traffic accident and that his nephew had been gunned down in cold blood while trying to dodge the bus. “All of them started shooting at him,” he said.
In the past, Palestinian attackers have gone on deadly rampages with bulldozers in Jerusalem traffic.
Shortly after the excavator attack, a gunman on a motorcycle shot and seriously wounded an Israeli soldier in Jerusalem. Police called it a “terrorist” attack, signaling alleged Palestinian involvement, and searched for the shooter in east Jerusalem.
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