Frustration mounted as both Israel and Palestinian militants ignored each other’s unilateral truce declarations Sunday, casting doubt on international efforts to bring the deadly warfare in the Gaza Strip to an end.
After initially approving a 24-hour “humanitarian window” requested by the United Nations, Israel declared shortly after 10 a.m. Sunday that it was resuming its offensive, citing “incessant rocket fire” from Gaza by Islamist fighters.
Hamas spokesman Sami abu Zuhri said the militia would not accept a truce that allowed Israeli troops to remain in Gaza and also demanded that tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced by 20 days of fighting be allowed to return home.
Then, in the afternoon, Hamas announced that militant factions had endorsed a 24-hour pause beginning at 2 p.m. out of consideration for the plight of Palestinians and the start of the Eid al-Fitr holiday. The three-day holiday beginning Monday marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Although fighting appeared to subside, by nightfall the two sides were firing on each other again amid mutual recrimination.
The U.N. Security Council met at midnight and called for “an immediate and unconditional humanitarian cease-fire” in the Gaza war, the Associated Press reported.
In a round of interviews on Sunday TV talk shows, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of violating its own cease-fire, telling CNN, “We will take whatever action is necessary to protect our people.”
“Israel is not obliged and is not going to let a terrorist organization determine when it’s convenient for them to fire at our cities, at our people, and when it’s not,” Netanyahu said in a separate interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
Hamas’ military wing said in a statement that it resumed fire after Israel “failed to abide by the humanitarian truce and after the indiscriminate shelling of civilian homes.”
The fighting has resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, with at least 15 reported Sunday. Israel has lost 43 soldiers, representing the country’s largest death toll in a military operation in nearly a decade. Three civilians have also died on the Israeli side, including a foreign worker.
International mediators had hoped that an extension of a 12-hour truce Saturday could add momentum to efforts to forge a weeklong cease-fire, with negotiations to be carried out in tandem on the fundamental issues underlining the conflict.
During Saturday’s lull, Palestinians dug nearly 150 bodies from the rubble of ruined districts that had been cut off by fierce shelling, and carried away what they could salvage. Many sobbed when they got their first glimpse of destroyed homes.
“I didn’t even know which house was mine,” said 24-year-old Ibrahim Mohammed, who ventured into the heavily bombed area of Beit Hanoun, in northern Gaza. “One person’s wardrobe was blown into another person’s house. Everything was mixed up.”
Some of his friends and neighbors sheltering with him at a United Nations-run school tried to go back Sunday to salvage more belongings, piling into taxis and donkey carts. Most returned empty-handed.
“I couldn’t reach my house,” said Faez Masri, a 40-year-old father of eight who returned flushed and exhausted carrying an empty child’s backpack he had hoped to fill with clothing. “They are still bombing.”
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spent days last week shuttling to meetings in the region and then holding talks in Paris to press for a cease-fire, none of which bore fruit.
Hamas is demanding the lifting of a crippling border blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after the militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. Israel is determined to bring an end to incessant rocket fire from militant factions and is demanding the “demilitarization” of the enclave.
A rocket fired Sunday injured a woman in southern Israel when it crashed through the roof of a room where she was sleeping.
Netanyahu has also declared his intent to rid Gaza of a series of tunnels dug by Palestinian militants to infiltrate Israel. “We’ll take the necessary action to protect our people including, by the way, continuing to dismantle tunnels,” he told Fox News. “That’s our policy.”
The confusing announcements about unilateral truces added to mounting frustration on both sides of the border.
“This truce is useless,” said Hassan Homeid, 27, as he surveyed his neighbor’s destroyed house in Gaza City.
The owners, who he said are affiliated with Hamas, evacuated before two Israeli shells were fired at the building Sunday afternoon, so there were no casualties. But the blasts collapsed a neighborhood kindergarten. A playhouse decorated with painted cartoon characters poked from the rubble.
“We want a real solution, not a Band-Aid,” Homeid said. “We want the war to stop.”
Palestinian despair boiled over Sunday in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis, where the International Committee of the Red Cross said dozens of angry residents broke into the office and set it on fire. They were apparently angry that the organization could not assist them, said Ran Goldstein, a spokesman for the ICRC in Israel.
In Israel, there was growing resistance to a longer-term cease-fire until the tunnel threat has been dealt with.
Israelis have been alarmed by the revelation that Hamas has built a sophisticated network of underground passages and bunkers in Gaza, some extending to Israel and meant for use in terrorist attacks.
Israeli troops have destroyed about a dozen tunnels and discovered dozens more beneath Gaza during the operation launched July 8.
“A permanent cease-fire now is the wrong thing,” said Haim Yellin, the mayor of the regional council of Sdot Negev, in Israel’s south, which has borne the brunt of rocket fire and is now imperiled by the tunnels. “We are asking the government to give the army all the time it needs to remove this threat from beneath our feet.”
In other developments, Israel announced the outcome of an inquiry into shelling Thursday at a school run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees that was sheltering about 800 people. The shelling killed at least 15 and injured scores more.
The inquiry found that militants operating from an area adjacent to the school had fired antitank missiles at Israeli soldiers, who responded by launching several mortar rounds in their direction.
“A single errant mortar landed in the courtyard of the UNRWA school, when it was completely empty,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement.
The military rejected accusations that Israel was to blame for the deaths and stressed that its forces do not target international organizations in Gaza.
Israel blames Hamas for launching attacks from densely populated areas, saying it puts Palestinian civilians in harm’s way.
Times staff writer Zavis reported from Gaza City and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, and staff writers Laura King in Cairo and Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.