Abbas backs Hamas ceasefire demands as Gaza death toll reaches 695

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Palestinian girls walk amidst debris following an Israeli military strike in Gaza city, on July 23, 2014. (Photo: AFP - Mahmud Hams)

Published Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Updated 11:29 pm: The Palestinian Authority on Wednesday endorsed demands by Hamas for halting Gaza hostilities with Israel, a closing of ranks that may help Egyptian-mediated truce efforts as the Palestinian death toll in the Israeli assault rose past 695.

As the violence entered its 16th day, Palestinian emergency services said that at least 73 people were killed on Wednesday during prolonged shelling of the southern town of Khan Younis and in the northern Gaza Strip. At least 526 more were wounded on Wednesday, most of them seriously.

According to Gaza Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qudra, more than 4,500 Palestinians have been wounded since the beginning of the US-backed Israeli aggression.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights said 81.5 percent of the dead were civilians, 24 percent of them children.

Hamas and other armed factions had balked at a truce proposal drafted by the Israeli-backed regime in Cairo, saying they wanted assurances of relief from an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and other concessions.

In a move that could effectively turn Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into the main interlocutor for a Gaza truce, his umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Wednesday formally supported core conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.

"The Gaza demands of stopping the aggression and lifting the blockade in all its forms are the demands of the entire Palestinian people and they represent the goal that the Palestinian leadership has dedicated all its power to achieve," senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said in Ramallah.

"We are confident Gaza will not be broken as long as our people are standing beside it to support it through all possible means until the invaders understand that our great people inside the homeland and outside will not leave Gaza alone."

Abbas' Fatah faction on Tuesday proposed a truce followed by five days of negotiations on terms.

There was no immediate response to the PLO statement from Hamas or Israel, which pressed the Gaza offensive it began on July 8.

Abbas pledged that Israel would be held accountable for Gaza deaths.

"We will pursue all those who commit crimes against our people, however long it takes," he said in televised comments ahead of an emergency meeting of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah.

The meeting's concluding statement called for "widespread popular protest in solidarity with Gaza and the resistance."

Shortly afterwards, Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian man in clashes at the West Bank village of Hussan, near Bethlehem, Palestinian security sources told AFP.

Over the past three weeks, Israeli police say they have arrested 800 Palestinian citizens of Israel and 295 residents of annexed east Jerusalem.

Israel said it would only halt its Gaza offensive after laying waste to a sophisticated network of tunnels allegedly used for cross-border attacks.

A ceasefire "won't happen before we really finish the tunnels project," Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said.

She said Hamas's "completely unacceptable" preconditions for a truce had "no chance of being accepted by anyone."

Hamas has laid out a list of demands for halting its fire, including a lifting of Israel's eight-year blockade on Gaza, the release of dozens of prisoners, and the opening of its Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

The Egyptian plan for a ceasefire does not specify a timeline for easing the blockade, saying "crossings shall be opened and the passage of persons and goods through border crossings shall be facilitated once the security situation becomes stable on the ground."

Since the Egyptian army toppled President Mohammed Mursi in July 2013, relations between Egypt and the besieged Palestinian enclave have been severely frayed, as Sisi accuses Hamas of being allied with Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement.

An Egyptian ceasefire proposal was rejected by Hamas last week as the Palestinian group said it had not been consulted by Egypt.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on a visit to Tel Aviv, appealed on Tuesday for Israel and Hamas to "stop fighting" and "start talking."

Following top-level talks in Cairo, Ban went to Tel Aviv and appealed to both sides to lay down arms.

"Stop fighting, start talking and take on the root causes of the conflict so that we are not at the same situation in the next six months or a year."

The UN chief described rocket fire by Hamas and other Palestinian groups as "shocking" and said it must "stop immediately."

He added that Israel must exercise "maximum restraint" in Gaza -- in contrast to his stronger exhortations for Palestinians -- and he urged it to take a hard look at some of the root causes of the conflict "so people will not feel they have to resort to violence as a means of expressing their grievances."

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that diplomacy to end the Gaza bloodshed has made progress, but warned more time was needed.

"We have certainly made some steps forward, but there is still work to be done," Kerry said in Jerusalem as he started a meeting with the UN's Ban.

"We are now joining our forces in strength to make a ceasefire as soon as possible," Ban said, warning there was no time to lose as concern mounted over the rising civilian body count.

Kerry, who declined to elaborate further on the shape of diplomatic efforts, is due to meet later Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas.

Kerry had discussed ceasefire proposals with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo earlier.

The top US diplomat again placed the onus on Hamas to accept a ceasefire, backing an Egyptian truce initiative as a "framework" to end the fighting.

Military violence continues in the Gaza Strip

Meanwhile in Gaza, Israeli forces pounded multiple sites across the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.

Clouds of black smoke hung over the densely populated Mediterranean enclave, with the regular thud of artillery and tank shells filling the air.

A seven-year-old hit by a shell in southern Gaza early Wednesday was among the day's casualties, a medic said.

Adding to the enclave's woes, residents said Israel shelled their power plant which provides electricity to half the people of Gaza.

Israeli fire on Tuesday hit a UN school sheltering the displaced for the second time in two days, said the United Nations' Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA.

"UNRWA condemns in the strongest possible terms the shelling of one of its schools in the central area of Gaza," it said in a statement.

"The location of the school and the fact that it was housing internally displaced persons had been formally communicated to Israel on three separate occasions. We have called on the Israeli authorities to carry out an immediate and comprehensive investigation."

During the offensive, more than 100,000 Gazans have fled their homes, seeking shelter in 69 schools run by UNRWA.

According to a Reuters tally, at least 18 families in the Palestinian enclave have lost four or more members. One lost 27.

When Israeli shells rained down nearly non-stop in the early hours of Sunday morning, the Ayyad family cowered in their hallway too scared to escape the border town of Shujayeh, once home to 100,000 and now a rubble-filled war zone.

At first light, they made their move. Mothers swept up toddlers in their arms and fathers clasped children's hands. "We walked, then ran as a group but they shelled us ... I'll never forget the image I saw as long as I live. It may even follow me to my grave," said Imran, 29.

Eleven of their number, including a pair of two-year olds, lay amid the dust and fallen trees.

"Painfully enough, we decided to help some of the lightly wounded who could walk, but we left the martyrs on ground. We left our beloved cousins dead. Can you believe it?" he said.

Relatives gathered at Gaza's main Shifa hospital where three family members were being treated for their injuries. But no one had yet summoned the courage to tell one young woman sprayed with shrapnel how much she had lost that morning.

"She's my daughter. I can't tell her that her son, the one she gave birth to after eight years of marriage, was killed," said the woman's mother, Umm Osama Ayyad. "Her husband is also dead. We can't tell her, she may die of shock...I don't want to lose her too. We've suffered enough already."

For Tareq Abu Jamea', 40, of the southern city of Khan Younis, the distance between life and the instant death of 27 extended family members plus a visiting brother-in-law was just over a meter (yard).

Mosque loudspeakers had just announced the evening invitation to break the Ramadan fast, and while his brothers and their families were dining he stepped out for a moment.

As soon as he left the house, the blast crashed down, sending him flying "like a bird" into the air and far away. "My leg was broken and I suffered a cut as well. I kept my head down and watched as death took away 28 of my family."

A grandmother, a pregnant woman, and 19 children including four babies were crushed under the rubble.

"Their aim throughout this war is to kill civilians ... They gave us no warning, no phone call and no warning missiles from the drone as they claim to," Abu Jamea' told Reuters.

Jamea' wants Israelis to face international justice in The Hague. "I wonder where is the pride of the world? Where is justice? Why aren't they sent to the International Court of Justice? Are they above the law?" he told Reuters.

Abu Jamea' said his family had no connection to any political groups. Israel says it is looking into the incident.

Fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters was briefly suspended in several flashpoint areas of Gaza on Wednesday to allow convoys of ambulances to retrieve the wounded, an ICRC spokeswoman said.

"A convoy of seven ambulances and two Red Cross cars went inside Shujayeh to evacuate the wounded," ICRC spokeswoman Cecilia Goin told AFP, saying the move had been coordinated with both Israel and Hamas.

A second convoy of nine ambulances and two Red Cross vehicles went into Khuzaa near the southern city of Khan Younis, an area which also came under very heavy Israeli fire overnight, she said.
A third team went into the northern town of Beit Hanun, the agency said.

Wednesday evening the Israeli military announced the deaths of three soldiers killed in the Gaza fighting during the day, bringing the Israeli toll to 32 soldiers and two civilians.

The three were killed when an explosive device exploded in a building in the Khan Yunis region in the southern Gaza Strip during a military operation on Wednesday. Three other Israeli soldiers were wounded.

The army on Tuesday confirmed the death of a soldier who Hamas claimed it had kidnapped, but said his remains were unaccounted for.

The European Union appealed to Israel to keep its military operation in Gaza "proportionate" and for "all sides to implement in good faith an immediate ceasefire," a statement from a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels said.

It added that "All terrorist groups in Gaza must disarm," a comment welcomed by Israel.

Samir Zaqout of the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza said he is confident that "sooner or later" Israeli leaders will be held accountable by international justice.

"What can we call these atrocities but war crimes? What happened in Shujayeh was a massacre and a multiple war crime. The occupation army fired tank shells, which are mostly inaccurate, into the entire suburb and killed people indiscriminately inside their houses and as they fled," he said.

Ten Israeli human rights organizations including B'Tselem said the army's shelling of Shujayeh may have violated the "fundamental principles of the laws of war, specifically the principle of distinguishing between combatants and civilians."

Warning calls or the presence of militants among groups of civilians could not justify the mass death incidents under international law, they said.

Amnesty International said on Tuesday that both sides "have repeatedly violated international law with impunity (and) must be held accountable".

This will be of little consolation for the al-Halaq family. They fled the artillery fire raining down on Shujayeh to a flat in a multi-story apartment building in the Remal area of downtown Gaza.

Just before dinner, an apparent missile fired from a plane hit the building, killing eight members of the family - both among those who fled and their hosts.

The youngest victim was just five. "They escaped death in Shujayeh, thinking the Remal area would be safer, but the Israelis didn't want to spare their lives," wept one relative, who declined to be named.
"I have no faith in the world, not any more," he said.

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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