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Hamas wary of Israeli truce extension; Gaza death toll tops 1,000

Gazans flock to shops and banks and surge into ruined neighborhoods as a 12-hour pause in fighting takes hold
With Israel's offensive in its 19th day, Palestinian officials say the death toll in Gaza has surpassed 1,000
The Israeli toll in the Gaza conflict reaches 44, including two civilians

A brief lull in fighting Saturday sent Palestinians in the battered Gaza Strip flocking to shops and banks and surging into devastated neighborhoods to search for missing relatives and recover belongings.

Wails arose and the stench of death hung in the air as scores of bodies were pulled from under rubble where they had lain for days. Palestinian officials said the death toll in the 19-day offensive had risen above 1,000, mostly civilians, with the recovery of corpses from areas previously cut off by fighting.

On the Israeli side of the frontier, the break from volleys of rocket fire provided a psychological lift, at least temporarily easing the necessity of rushing for shelter whenever air raid sirens sounded.

At the request of the United Nations, Israel's Cabinet approved an additional 24-hour cessation in fighting to begin at midnight, government officials announced. But they cautioned that Israel would "respond to any violations."

Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri said in a statement that any humanitarian truce that does not include withdrawal of the "occupation forces" in Gaza, permission for people to return to their homes and provisions to evacuate the wounded will not be acceptable.

As night fell and the initial truce was set to expire, Israel announced a four-hour extension, until midnight, issuing the same caveat that the cease-fire would be revoked if its forces came under attack, Israeli TV reported.

But Abu Zuhri told Al Jazeera there was no agreement on the extension. Shortly after Israel announced it, three mortar rounds were fired from Gaza at Israel, the Israeli military said.

Even during the initial daylight cease-fire, Israeli troops continued working to destroy Hamas-dug “attack” tunnels, the army said. The deaths of two more Israeli soldiers were announced overnight and two others succumbed Saturday to their wounds, bringing the Israeli military toll to 42. Three civilians have died on the Israeli side since the offensive began July 8; one was a foreign farmworker.

Israel’s insistence that such operations continue during any longer cease-fire has been a key sticking point to efforts to hammer out a weeklong truce, which would take place in tandem with negotiations on the two sides’ demands.

Israelis have been shaken by the discovery of a large and sophisticated network of underground passageways under Gaza, with many of them designed to funnel attackers across the frontier.

Later, long-range rockets were flying over the border toward the Israeli cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Rehovot.

On Saturday morning, the thud of heavy explosions had continued right up until the 8 a.m. start time of a 12-hour cessation of hostilities agreed to by Israel and Hamas hours earlier.

Minutes before it took effect, an Israeli strike on a house in the central Gaza city of Khan Yunis killed 20 people, Ashraf Qidra, a local Health Ministry spokesman, told journalists. The victims included at least 12 members of a family that was sheltering there from fighting in the nearby village of Khaza, he said.

Even during the pause in fighting, the crackle of gunfire could be heard sporadically and drones circled overhead. But by afternoon, no major new battles had broken out.

The two sides had agreed to the hiatus at the urging of Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other mediators, although an attempt to forge a weeklong halt to the fighting fell short.

Kerry held meetings in Paris on Saturday with European and Middle Eastern officials, pressing ahead with efforts to forge a longer truce in time for the upcoming Muslim feast marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. The feast begins Monday.

After a day of talks, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius -- speaking on behalf of diplomats from the U.S., Britain, Germany, Italy, Turkey and Qatar -- called for an extension of Saturday’s daytime lull in fighting. He also voiced hopes that a more substantive cease-fire would soon be in place, with all parties’ longer-term security and economic interests addressed.

In Gaza, Saturday’s respite allowed many who had been trapped in their homes or temporary shelters to reunite with scattered family members, make hospital visits and search for desperately needed supplies. Fishermen cast their nets for the first time in days, and children splashed in the waves.

Markets were jammed with people stocking up on food, clothing and batteries to see them through the long daily power outages.

Suhaila Sadi, a 60-year-old woman shrouded in a face-concealing white veil, browsed through piles of shirts spread out on a vendor's table in downtown Gaza City. One with leopard spots caught her eye.

"I want to buy a shirt or two because we left our house with nothing," she said. "We barely left with our skin, so there are many things we need."

Promptly at 8 a.m., people began flooding into eastern Gaza’s ruined district of Shajaiya, which had been largely inaccessible due to airstrikes and gunfire exchanges that have all but leveled parts of the neighborhood since Sunday.

Israeli forces targeted the area to take out rocket launch sites, command centers and infiltration tunnels dug by Hamas militants, but scores of families were caught up in bombardment and street battles.

In Shajaiya on Saturday morning, Red Crescent ambulance workers searched for bodies inside homes pocked by bullets. Twisted metal, downed power lines and concrete rubble littered the streets, which were almost impassible in places. The smell of decaying bodies wafted over a wide area.

Mohammed Harara, 35, was among those hurrying down a rubble-strewn street, stopping at a modest three-story concrete-block house. All its windows were shattered and the structure was badly damaged, with the bottom-floor walls and its contents blown into the street.

Harara cursed, then went inside to see what could be salvaged. Incredibly, some tiny yellow chicks emerged peeping from the debris.

In a knocked-down wardrobe, Harara found a laundry basket still filled with clean clothes, which he brought downstairs but did not know where to take them. His wife and children were sheltering with various relatives, he said.

“There’s no such thing as a truce -- it’s just lies,” he said. “I don’t know where to go. No one does.”

His family fled Sunday morning amid intense gun and artillery fire. They were barely 50 yards from the house when it was hit by a shell, he said.

Another strike ripped apart two ambulances that had pulled up in front of a neighbor's house. Their blackened and twisted shells lay in the street Saturday.

The blast sent a paramedic's body flying past the fleeing family, Harara said. "We were seconds from death."

Next door, Khalid Biltaji, 64, stood before the ruins of his home and wept.

"I lived here for 60 years," he said, removing a pair of rimless spectacles to wipe away his tears.

A cousin pointed to where the second floor had been. The roof was gone, and all that remained were piles of rubble.

"A lifetime's worth of work, and now it's gone," said the cousin, Mohammed Biltaji, 38.

Picking his way through the debris-strewn ground floor, he pointed out the tiny sitting room at the back of the house where dozens of family members had huddled together through the terrifying explosions.

A shell slammed through the roof of a house on the other side of a small courtyard, sending glass and debris flying into the room where the family had assembled.

"This is my father's blood," he said, pointing to a large brown patch on the floor. "The ambulance people ripped the curtains to bandage his head."

At another house, a woman in black robes picked up a man's sandal and held it to her breast.

"This is where my husband died," she wailed. "This is where my daughter died."

A group of men emerged from the basement of a bullet-scarred building carrying a body wrapped in a blanket. Torn-up donkey and camel carcasses lay on the ground.

Around a corner, a group of Israeli tanks stood under some trees.

Staff writer Zavis reported from Gaza City and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem. Staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

3:20 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect a new 24-hour truce declared by Israel, Hamas reaction and a higher Israeli death toll

12:10 p.m.: This post has been updated with Hamas' rejection of an extension of the truce, rockets and mortars being fired at Israel, and the situation on Israeli side of the border.

9:31 a.m.: This post has been updated with reports of Israel's announcement that it would extend the cease-fire.

7:11 a.m.: This post has been updated with new information on the death toll from the fighting and on Secretary of State John F. Kerry's meetings on the crisis.

The post was originally published at 12:03 a.m., July 26, 2014.

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