A 72-hour cease-fire between Israel and Hamas took effect early Friday in the Gaza Strip, as both sides intensify efforts to find a more permanent end to the nearly four weeks of fighting.
The cease-fire, announced by the U.S. and the U.N. hours earlier, took effect at 8 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) Friday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned there were “no guarantees” that the lull would bring an end to the Gaza war, now in its fourth week.
Israel and Hamas both said they would respect the cease-fire but would respond to attacks. At least four short humanitarian cease-fires have been announced since the conflict began, but each has been broken within a few hours by renewed fighting.
In the hours before the cease-fire took effect Friday, Gaza police reported heavy Israeli tank shelling in northern and eastern Gaza, and the loud exchange of fire between Israeli troops and militants was audible throughout Gaza City. Tank shells landed on homes in the city, setting homes and shops ablaze.
Hamas fighters hit an Israeli tank with an anti-tank missile, Gaza police said, and then attacked Israeli troops who came to evacuate the tank crew. Clashes continued into the early morning hours, police said.
In violence ahead of the truce, Israel announced five of its fighters had been killed in a mortar attack. A total of 61 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed.
The Palestinian death toll exceeds 1,400 since the offensive began July 8. Palestinian officials said 17 Palestinians, including 10 members of one family, were killed in Israeli strikes ahead of the planned three-day cease-fire.
Stephanie Dujarric, a spokesman for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said the humanitarian cease-fire will give civilians in Gaza a much-needed reprieve from the fighting.
“During this period, civilians in Gaza will receive urgently needed humanitarian relief, and the opportunity to carry out vital functions, including burying the dead, taking care of the injured, and restocking food supplies,” Dujarric said.
“Overdue repairs on essential water and energy infrastructure could also continue during this period,” she said.
The truce announced Thursday forbids either side from making military advances. However, Israel said it will continue to destroy tunnels Hamas has used to smuggle weapons and fighters into Israel.
Later Friday, Israeli and Palestinian delegations are expected to head to Cairo for talks on underlying disputes between Israel and Hamas. U.S. officials are also joining the negotiations.
Israel and Hamas are far apart on cease-fire conditions.
Israeli leaders have been pushing for the demilitarization of Hamas, which has sent thousands of rockets into Israeli territory in recent weeks.
The Islamist group wants an end to the Israeli-led blockade that has strangled Gaza’s economy and prevented Gazans from traveling.
Kerry on Thursday cautioned that the truce is not permanent, calling it a “moment of opportunity.”
He said the people of Gaza deserve to live in safety and dignity, while Israel’s security concerns need to be met as well. – Voice of America