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U.S., U.N. announce humanitarian cease-fire in Mideast conflict

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Posted at 4:03 PM, Jul 31, 2014
and last updated 2014-07-31 18:03:01-04

By Mariano Castillo and Karl Penhaul

CNN

GAZA CITY (CNN) — After weeks of fighting, hundreds of deaths, some semblance of peace may be coming to the Middle East — at least temporarily.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Thursday that an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire will begin at 8 a.m. local time in Gaza. It will last 72 hours — or three days — “unless extended,” the United Nations said in a statement.

“During this time, the forces on the ground will remain in place,” the statement said.

The cease-fire is meant to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in Gaza caught up in the violence, some of whom have seen their neighborhoods hit hard and loved ones killed, hurt or displaced.

At least 1,432 people have been killed in Gaza during the current conflict, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health — a figure that is higher than the 1,417 Palestinians that the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said died in the 22 days of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which spanned 2008 and 2009.

Those killed in the ongoing hostilities — which are tied to the Israeli military’s Operation Protective Edge — include 327 children and 166 women, the Gaza health ministry reports.

The bloodshed prompted the United Nations’ top human rights official to warn earlier that war crimes may have been committed, accusing Israel of “deliberate defiance of obligations (to) international law.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay referred to the shelling of homes, schools, hospitals and U.N. “premises,” while insisting, “We cannot allow this impunity, we cannot allow this lack of accountability to go on.”

“None of this appears, to me, to be accidental,” Pillay said.

The calls for accountability didn’t just come from the United Nations.

“Civilian casualties in Gaza have been too high. It is clear the Israelis need to do more” to prevent civilian deaths, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters.

Kerry said he’s hopeful there can be a cease-fire that will bring peace — even temporarily to the region.

Yet Samy Bahraqe, a Palestinian in a U.N. camp after her home was destroyed, says she’s lost hope, in everything, already.

“Life is meaningless,” Bahraqe said. “… What dreams in life can we have now that everything is ruined?”

More Israeli troops

The Israeli military said Thursday that it is calling up 16,000 additional reservists, bolstering its forces for its fight against Hamas in Gaza after a request for more ammunition from the United States.

The addition brings the total number of reservists Israel has called up since the beginning of the operation against Hamas to 86,000, a military spokeswoman said.

After more than three weeks of fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel would complete its goal of destroying Hamas’ network of tunnels with or without a cease-fire. Netanyahu said this is just the first phase of the demilitarization of Gaza.

While U.S. officials have called on Israel to do more to protect civilians, the United States has agreed to Israel’s request to resupply it with several types of ammunition, a U.S. defense official told CNN on condition of anonymity. It’s not an emergency sale, the official said. The items being bought include tank rounds and illumination rounds, the Pentagon said.

Shells land near U.N. school

As has happened day after day after day, Hamas continued to launch rockets Thursday — many of which Israel intercepted, though some did land.

One rocket hit inside a neighborhood in Qiryat Gat, which is about 20 miles from Gaza on the Israeli side of the border. One man was seriously injured and a car caught on fire, Israeli spokesman Mikey Rosenfeld said.

The man suffered from shrapnel injuries and has been taken to the hospital.

Another rocket hit in an open field.

Fifty-six Israeli soldiers have died, according to the military, and three civilians have been killed in Israel since the conflict began. Many more citizens have been forced to take shelter, as rockets rained overhead.

Still, the level of death and destruction doesn’t compare with what’s happening in Gaza, where health workers are struggling to deal with the relentless stream of dead and wounded.

“The hospitals in Gaza yesterday had a very difficult time. All the hospital morgues were flooding with dead bodies, and the injured were laying on hospital floors because of the lack of hospital beds,” said Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Gaza Ministry of Health..

Gaza’s health ministry said that Thursday’s toll included 11 people — among them three children — killed by a strike on a house in the Nurisat camp in central Gaza. Another 46 were injured.

Meanwhile, a number of shells fell Thursday next to a U.N. school housing displaced residents — a day after another school-turned-shelter was hit by artillery killing more than a dozen people.

“The school itself was not targeted, it was nearby the school,” Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said about the Thursday incident.

No one was killed inside the school — the Beit Lahiya School for Girls, he said. Eight people were slightly injured.

Calls for civilian protection

The violence between Israel’s military and Palestinian militants is playing out against a backdrop of failed humanitarian cease-fire attempts, with militants firing rockets from Gaza into Israel and Israelis responding with airstrikes.

A large part of the criticism has been leveled at Israel and its airstrikes, which have bombarded Gaza.

Chile, Peru, Brazil and Ecuador have pulled their ambassadors out of Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli offensive.

Israel, in turn, has accused Hamas of hiding weapons, including rockets, in schools and launching attacks from near shelters.

‘This is a disaster’

The incessant attacks and counterattacks are taking a terrible toll on Gazans.

More than 219,000 Palestinians are packed into 86 shelters across Gaza, the U.N. said. That equals about 12% of all of Gaza’s population.

Clean water is inaccessible for most. And some 3,600 people have lost their homes.

“We cannot supply electricity” for hospitals, sewage treatment or domestic use, said Fathi al-Sheikh Khalil, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Energy Natural Resources Authority in Gaza. “This is a disaster.”

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it sent 43 trucks carrying 750 tons of food, medicine and supplies to Gaza on Wednesday. It also said it has sent fuel.

CNN’s Karl Penhaul reported from Gaza City; and Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN’s Tim Lister, Kareem Khadder, Samira Said, Tal Heinrich, Greg Botelho and Larry Register contributed to this report.

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