GAZA CITY: Barack Obama ratcheted up pressure Sunday on Israel to agree to an “immediate, unconditional” cease-fire in Gaza in the hope it will produce movement toward a more durable end to the fighting.
The U.S. president made the call in a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stressing the need for an immediate and sustainable cease-fire as the Palestinian death toll from Israel’s 20-day offensive topped the 1,000 mark, most of them civilians.
In a statement, the White House said Obama “made clear the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire that ends hostilities now and leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities based on the November 2012 cease-fire agreement.”
It came after Israel and Hamas launched new attacks, despite going back and forth over proposals for a temporary halt to the fighting ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
The failure to reach even a brief humanitarian lull in the fighting illustrated the difficulties in securing a more permanent truce as the sides remain far apart on their terms.After initially rejecting an Israeli offer Saturday for a 24-hour truce, Hamas said Sunday that it had agreed to hold fire ahead of the holiday marking the end of the month of Ramadan. But as Israel’s Cabinet met to discuss the offer and the ongoing war, rockets rained down on southern Israel and Israeli strikes could be heard in Gaza.
Each side blamed the other for scuttling the efforts.
Hamas said that “due to the lack of commitment” by Israel, it resumed its fire. Netanyahu said Hamas showed it could not be trusted after it violated other cease-fire efforts. “ Israel is not obliged and is not going to let a terrorist organization decide when it’s convenient to fire at our cities, at our people, and when it’s not,” he told “Fox News Sunday.”
International diplomats had hoped a temporary lull could be expanded into a more sustainable truce to end the bloodshed and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged the sides to accept a 24-hour break in fighting.
However, both sides were holding out for bigger gains.
Hamas wants to break the seven-year blockade of Gaza and believes the only way to force serious negotiations is to keep fighting. Israel, which launched the war on July 8 to halt Hamas rocket fire on its cities, wants more time to destroy Hamas’ rocket arsenal and the tunnels its fighters use to infiltrate into Israel and smuggle weapons.
More than 1,030 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed in Israel’s offensive, according to Palestinian health officials. Israel has lost 43 soldiers, while two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker in Israel were killed by rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza.
Following Hamas’ call for a break in fighting, an Israeli airstrike killed one person in Gaza when it hit a vehicle carrying municipal workers on their way to fix water pipes, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.
Ahead of the three-day Eid al-Fitr, which begins Monday, families in Gaza ordinarily would be busy with preparations, with children getting new clothes, shoes and haircuts, and families visiting each other.
But business was slow in the outdoor market of the Jebaliya refugee camp, where vendors set up stands with clothes and shoes.
Hamed Abul Atta, 22, a shoe salesman, said he hadn’t made a single sale in the first three hours after opening. He added that he and his family were staying with relatives after fleeing the Shejaiyah district of Gaza City, which has seen heavy fighting. He said a cousin and three other relatives were among dozens of people killed there last week.
“We can’t feel any joy right now,” he said when asked if he would mark the holiday.
Also, the Israeli military acknowledged firing a mortar shell that hit the courtyard of a U.N. school in Gaza last week, but claimed the yard was empty at the time and that the shell could not have killed anyone.
Palestinian officials have said three Israeli tank shells hit the school in the town of Beit Hanoun Thursday, killing 16 people and wounding scores. The school served as a shelter for Palestinians displaced by the Gaza fighting. At the time of the incident, witnesses said they were being urged to evacuate because of nearby clashes.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said a military probe shows that “a single errant mortar landed,” but that it is “extremely unlikely that anybody was killed as a result of this mortar.”
A 12-hour lull Saturday – agreed to by both sides following intense U.S. and United Nations mediation efforts – saw Palestinians return to neighborhoods reduced to rubble and allowed medics to collect close to 120 bodies, Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.