GAZA/JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel said it would unilaterally hold fire in most of the Gaza Strip yesterday to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid and allow some of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced by an almost four-week-old war to go back to home.
The announcement, made first to Palestinian media, met with suspicion from Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists and followed unusually strong censure from Washington at the apparent Israeli shelling on Sunday of a U.N.-run shelter that killed 10 people.
An Israeli defence official said the ceasefire, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (0700 to 1400 GMT), would apply everywhere but areas of the southern town of Rafah where ground forces have intensified assaults after three soldiers died in a Hamas ambush there on Friday.
“If the truce is breached, the military will return fire during the declared duration of the truce,” the official said.
The official said east Rafah was the only urban area in which troops and tanks were still present, having been withdrawn or redeployed near Gaza’s border with Israel over the weekend.
Israel is winding down its offensive in the absence of a mediated disengagement deal with Hamas. It says the military is close to completing its main objective of destroying cross-border infiltration tunnels from Gaza and prepared to resume strikes in response to any future attacks by the Palestinians.
Hamas, whose envoys are in Egypt for truce negotiations that Israel has shunned in anger at Friday’s lethal ambush in Rafah, saw a possible ruse in the humanitarian truce announcement.
“The calm Israel declared is unilateral and aims to divert attention away from the Israeli massacres. We do not trust such a calm and we urge our people to exercise caution,” said the group’s spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri.
Israel launched its offensive on July 8 following a surge in Hamas rocket salvoes. It escalated from air and naval barrages to overland incursions centred on Gaza’s tunnel-riddled eastern frontier but also pushing into densely populated towns.
Gaza officials say 1,788 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed and more than a quarter of the impoverished enclave’s 1.8 million residents displaced. As many as 3,000 Palestinian homes have been destroyed or damaged.
Many of those evacuees took shelter in U.N.-run facilities, including a Rafah school where 10 people were killed on Sunday in what Gaza officials said was an Israeli air strike.