Truce crumbles as 40 killed in Gaza, rockets hit Israel
A Gaza ceasefire crumbled only hours after it began today, with at least 40 Palestinians killed by Israeli shelling and Israel accusing militants of violating the US- and UN-brokered truce by firing rockets and mortars.
The 72-hour break announced by US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was the most ambitious attempt so far to end more than three weeks of fighting, and followed mounting international alarm over a rising Palestinian civilian death toll.
The ceasefire was to be followed by Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo on a longer-term solution.
Israel launched its offensive in Hamas Islamist-dominated Gaza on July 8, unleashing air and naval bombardments in response to a surge of cross-border rocket attacks. Tanks and infantry pushed into the territory of 1.8 million on July 17.
Gaza officials say at least 1,499 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed and 7,000 wounded. Sixty-one Israeli soldiers have been killed and more than 400 hurt. Three civilians have been killed by Palestinian rockets in Israel.
Some two hours after the truce went into effect, Israeli tanks and artillery opened fire in the southern Rafah area, and a local hospital said 40 people were killed.
The Israeli military had no immediate comment but media reports said the shelling began after Hamas fighters exchanged fire with Israeli soldiers on a mission to destroy infiltration tunnels.
Eight rockets and mortar bombs were fired from Gaza at Israel, the military said, adding that one was intercepted by the Iron Dome system and seven hit open areas.
An official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said Hamas and other armed groups in the Gaza Strip had "flagrantly violated the ceasefire". But the official stopped short of formally declaring the truce over.
After the ceasefire began at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT), Gaza's streets began to fill with Palestinian families. Laden with belongings, they streamed back to homes they fled during fierce fighting that destroyed or damaged thousands of dwellings.
"We are going back to Beit Lahiya (in the northern Gaza Strip)," said Asharaf Zayed, a 38-year-old father of four. "We hope the truce will be permanent and we won't have to go back to a UN shelter."
Amid strong public support in Israel for the Gaza campaign, Netanyahu had faced intense pressure from abroad to stand his forces down.
International calls for an end to the bloodshed intensified after shelling on Wednesday that killed 15 people sheltering in a UN-run school in Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp.