Israel Halts Fire for Humanitarian Relief in Besieged Gaza

Israel held its fire in parts of the Gaza Strip to allow for humanitarian relief while continuing to strike elsewhere in the Hamas-run territory, as rockets fired by militants slammed into southern Israel.

The seven-hour unilateral “humanitarian window” began at 10 a.m. local time in all areas of Gaza except those where the military is already operating, the army said in an e-mailed statement. With Gaza militants continuing to bombard Israel with rocket and mortar fire, the military said it would respond if Israeli civilians or soldiers are attacked.

The offensive, which Israel says is intended to quash the rocket salvoes and destroy cross-border tunnels militants built to raid it, has been the deadliest in Gaza since Israeli settlers and soldiers left the territory in 2005. More than 1,800 Palestinians have been killed, including hundreds of civilians, according to Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra. On the Israeli side, 64 soldiers and three civilians have been killed. While Israel has been reducing troop levels and repositioning others, the violence hasn’t let up.

The onslaught in Gaza has ignited Palestinian protests in the West Bank and Jerusalem, where a public bus was rammed today by a construction vehicle on a city street. Police said the driver of the excavator was one of two people killed in an attack that had echoes of three carried out in 2008 and 2009.

Cairo Meetings

“There could have been a much worse tragedy here if the police hadn’t been alert,” Nir Barkat, mayor of Jerusalem, said on Channel 2 television. Israel Radio reported that the attacker lived in a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem. Palestinians in east Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens but carry Israeli ID cards that allow them to move freely throughout the country.

U.S., Palestinian and Egyptian envoys began meeting in Cairo yesterday in search of an end to the third major showdown between Israel and Gaza militants in less than six years. Israel isn’t sending anyone to Cairo, saying Hamas has undermined previous truce efforts, a charge the group levels at Israel, too.

Both sides want a cease-fire to address issues previous truces didn’t resolve. Hamas is pressing to lift a blockade that Israel, citing security concerns, initiated in 2006 and Egypt joined. Israel wants Gaza militants disarmed.

International Censure

Israeli markets have been resilient amid the fighting, which began July 8. The TA-25 benchmark stock index has gone up 1.3 percent in that period and the shekel has strengthened 0.3 percent against the dollar.

The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry said today that an eight-year-old girl was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza city and 15 people were wounded. The Israeli army said it was checking the report.

Israel was criticized yesterday by the U.S. and United Nations over a strike that killed 10 Palestinians near a UN shelter. The U.S. government was “appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling,” Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

The Israeli military said in a text message it had targeted three members of Islamic Jihad on a motorcycle “in the vicinity” of the UN Relief and Works Agency facility in the southern city of Rafah, and “is reviewing the consequences of this strike.”

‘Shock and Disbelief’

It was the third time a facility belonging to the UN agency was hit with deadly consequences. Pierre Kraehenbuehl, commissioner-general of the UN agency, expressed “shock and disbelief” that such an attack could happen again. The school was providing refuge to about 3,000 Palestinians, and in all, the UN is sheltering about 250,000 displaced people in about 90 school buildings in Gaza, he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program yesterday.

Israel, like the U.S. and European Union, considers Hamas and Islamic Jihad to be terrorist groups. Israeli army commanders say Hamas and other Gaza militant groups expose large numbers of civilians to casualties by locating weapons, rocket launchers and other facilities in areas such as homes and mosques.

The UN has discovered weapons caches in its schools three times and disclosed them “in a very proactive and transparent way,” Kraehenbuehl said. The UN condemns any efforts by militants to store weapons in its facilities, he said, while urging Israel to refrain from more attacks against shelters.

Since the Israeli operation began, Hamas and other Gaza militant groups have fired more than 3,200 rockets at Israeli towns and cities and have staged armed raids against Israel through tunnels and by sea. Israel has hit more than 4,600 targets in the seaside strip and has uncovered more than 30 tunnels, according to the army. Yesterday, a military official said operations to destroy known tunnels would wind up today.

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