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TOLL RISES OVER 1,050 Gaza truce hopes fade

GAZA CITY, July 27, (Agencies): The Islamist Hamas movement fired more rockets at Israel Sunday, despite claims it had accepted a UN request for a 24-hour extension of a humanitarian truce in war-torn Gaza. Hamas’s belated acceptance of diplomatic calls for a temporary ceasefire was announced several hours after Israel resumed its devastating military assault on the Palestinian enclave after a pause of more than 24 hours. Although Hamas said its militants would halt their fire from 1100 GMT in response to a request from the United Nations, there was no response from Israel. And Palestinian rocket fire continued, with 22 striking the Jewish state after the reported truce went into effect, an army spokeswoman told AFP, adding another five were intercepted. “They are violating their own ceasefire,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the CNN news network.

In a separate interview with CBS, he said Israel would not allow “a ruthless terror organisation ... to decide when it’s convenient for them to stop for a moment, rearm, and continue firing on our citizens and our people”. The abortive Hamas announcement came shortly after Israel said it would no longer abide by a unilateral ceasefire while coming under “incessant” fire from Gaza. Shortly afterwards, Israel resumed its punishing air strikes and tank fire, killing 11 people across the territory, including an elderly Christian woman, medics said. Another three people also succumbed to their wounds, raising the Palestinian toll on day 20 of Israel’s devastating military campaign to 1,050, Gaza’s emergency services said.
 
The renewed violence came after a rare 12-hour cessation in hostilities on Saturday, which was respected by both sides, with world powers urging Israel and Hamas to extend the temporary truce by another day. “The Secretary-General urges, in the strongest terms, both the Israelis and Palestinians to extend, for an additional 24 hours, the humanitarian cease-fire that was in effect and mostly observed until early this morning,” a statement from UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman said. Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said his group could not coexist with Israel as long as it occupied Palestinian land. “We are not actually fighting the Jews because they are Jews,” he said in remarks broadcast Sunday. “We fight the occupiers.”
 
“I’m ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians and the Arabs and non-Arabs,” he said. “However, I do not coexist with the occupiers.” In Washington, a US official said Secretary of State John Kerry was pressing efforts for further pauses in the fighting, after he returned early Sunday from a week-long mission to the Middle East, which failed to produce a long-term ceasefire. Israeli media said Netanyahu’s security cabinet was meeting on Sunday evening to discuss the next steps. Saturday’s relative calm was a distant memory by Sunday. “I was praying at church when my father called me and told me to go home quickly,” said Antonio Ayyad, a Christian whose elderly mother was killed when a missile hit their home in western Gaza City. “They are targeting Christians in Gaza,” he said. “I’m not Hamas, I’m not Fatah — I don’t belong to any Palestinian faction. Where is the world? Where is the pope?” he asked.
 
In Rome, Pope Francis pleaded for an end to the bloodshed which has killed more than 1,000 victims, around a quarter of them children. “Stop, please stop! I beg you with all my heart,” he said in the weekly Angelus prayer. Following Saturday’s humanitarian lull, Israel agreed to extend the truce by 24 hours, but Hamas fired rockets over the border, one of which killed a soldier. Then, after 12 hours of holding its fire, Israel said it was resuming operations following “incessant” Hamas rocket fire. Shortly afterwards, the skies of Gaza were filled with the familiar sound of explosions, as plumes of black smoke rose on the horizon, an AFP correspondent in Gaza City said.
 
Ambulance sirens wailed as medics sprang into action, cars racing down streets which quickly emptied of people who had ventured out to make the most of the lull. For Israelis, the quiet ended late on Saturday with air raid warnings sounding along the coastal plain as rockets hit the south and centre, killing a soldier and raising to 43 the number of troops killed since the July 17 start of a ground operation to destroy tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel. Two Israeli civilians and a Thai agricultural worker have also been killed by rocket fire. 
 
By Sunday morning, there appeared to be little appetite in Israel to prolong the one-sided truce, with 86.5 percent of Israelis opposing any ceasefire in the current climate, army radio said, quoting pollsters Mina Tzemah. Meanwhile, a top Pentagon intelligence official warned on Saturday that the destruction of Hamas would only lead to something more dangerous taking its place, as he offered a grim portrait of a period of enduring regional conflict. The remarks by Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, came as Israeli ministers signaled that a comprehensive deal to end the 20-day-old conflict in the Gaza Strip appeared remote.
 
At least 1,050 Gazans — mostly civilians — have been killed, and 42 Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel have died. Flynn disparaged Hamas for exhausting finite resources and know-how to build tunnels that have helped them inflict record casualties on Israelis. Still, he suggested that destroying Hamas was not the answer. “If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse. The region would end up with something much worse,” Flynn said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “A worse threat that would come into the sort of ecosystem there  something like ISIS,” he added, referring to the Islamic State, which last month declared an “Islamic caliphate” in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.
 
Confined in the crowded, sandy coast enclave of 1.8 million, where poverty and unemployment hover around 40 percent, weary Gazans say they hope the battle will break the blockade that Israel and Egypt impose on them. Israeli officials said any ceasefire must allow the military to carry on hunting down the Hamas tunnel network that criss-crosses the Gaza border. Flynn’s comments about the conflict came during a gloomy, broader assessment of unrest across the Middle East, including in Syria and Iraq. Flynn said bluntly: “Is there going to be a peace in the Middle East? Not in my lifetime.” Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal demanded Israel lift its blockade of Gaza and warned that Palestinians cannot coexist with their neighbors while their land is occupied, in an interview broadcast Sunday.
 
On Saturday, Meshaal was interviewed by US broadcaster PBS in the Qatari capital Doha while in Gaza his Islamist militia was under assault from Israeli forces in renewed fighting that has left hundreds dead.
A full version of the interview will be broadcast late on Monday, but excerpts were revealed on Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” Asked by veteran interviewer Charlie Rose whether he could foresee living beside Israelis in peace, Meshaal said only a future Palestinian state could decide whether to recognize the Jewish state. “We are not fanatics, we are not fundamentalists. We are not actually fighting the Jews because they are Jews per se. We do not fight any other races. We fight the occupiers,” he said. “I’m ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians and the Arabs and non-Arabs,” he said.
 
“However, I do not coexist with the occupiers.” Pressed on whether Palestinians could recognize the state of Israel as a Jewish state, Meshaal reiterated Hamas’ position — the group does not recognize Israel. “When we have a Palestinian state then the Palestinian state will decide on its policies. You cannot actually ask me about the future. I answered you,” he said. “But Palestinian people can have their say when they have their own state without occupation.” Hamas declared a 24-hour ceasefire on Sunday, but fighting continued in Gaza and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his forces would push on with attempts to destroy the group’s tunnel network. Inside Ashraf al-Qudra’s cramped office in Shifa hospital, the phone never stops ringing, with news flooding in of the latest victims of Israel’s devastating 20-day military operation.
 
With over 1,060 people killed and more than 6,000 wounded, counting the dead is a full-time occupation for the 41-year-old spokesman for Gaza’s emergency services. Since the operation began on July 8, Qudra has been sleeping just two hours a night on a mattress in his office, his staff updating him round the clock on the latest victims of the Israeli offensive, his phone constantly ringing with journalists seeking details of the latest toll. He lies down for a rest, but his much-needed siesta is swiftly interrupted as an aide rushes in. “Doctor Qudra, there are many many dead and injured in a shelling on Shuhada hospital!” exclaims a breathless assistant.
 
The 41-year-old immediately begins scribbling down notes as phones ring and a wireless radio crackles with news of more death and injury across war-torn Gaza. He calls the hospitals, coordinating efforts to keep track of the wounded. “There’s no safe place from the Israeli shelling,” says Qudra, a tall man with a neatly-trimmed beard who has been doing the job for four years. “They targeted Al-Wafa hospital, Shahada hospital and the European hospital, which I feared would happen,” he said.
 
“I don’t doubt they’ll hit this hospital at some point,” he says, watching out the window as an ambulance unloads more of the wounded. “The enemy has gone beyond insane, there’s disaster after disaster.” Figures released by the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA indicate nearly three quarters of the victims were civilians and around a quarter of them children. And it says 18 hospitals, clinics and medical centres have been hit and damaged by Israeli shelling. Israel has lost 43 soldiers, and three civilians have been killed by cross-border projectiles.
 
Shifa is the largest of Gaza’s seven hospitals, all of which have been working around the clock since the Israel operation began on July 8 with the aim of eradicating cross-border rocket fire, which later expanded into a ground operation. A call comes in on the landline — five more dead and at least 70 wounded, among them doctors and paramedics in a strike on Shuhada hospital in Khan Yunis. The phone rings again. But this time it’s his wife. Qudra cracks a rare smile and asks after his four children, reassuring them that he’s still safe and well. He has seen his family only once in the past three weeks. “I miss them,” he admits. And like many ordinary Gazans, he struggles to support them.
 
Despite his crucial role, Qudra, who recently qualified as a doctor, has not been paid for several months.
Until two months ago, he was spokesman for the Hamas-run health ministry, but the Islamist movement — which administered Gaza until handing over responsibility to a Ramallah-based government in June — ran out of funds to pay its government workers. But he does not consider himself allied to Hamas, insisting his work is a humanitarian duty. “I believe strongly in my humanitarian mission,” he says of a job which involves answering around 700 phonecalls per day. Every evening, he holds a news conferences at the hospital at which he reads out the figures and names of the victims. But long before, every detail is meticulously recorded in near-constant postings in Arabic on both Twitter and Facebook.
 
For journalists covering the conflict, Qudra is the sole source of information. With numbers rising so quickly, sometimes by 100 deaths per day, it would be an impossible task to independently verify every casualty. Qudra insists his numbers add up. “The statistics we use and publish are accurate and objective,” he says, proud but weary. His first experience of a major conflict between Israel and Hamas was in November 2012 when 177 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in an eight-day confrontation. This time, he admits, the conflict has definitely affected him emotionally. “I see corpses and body parts all the time,” he says. “But what really gets to me is the sight of women and children who’ve been killed in shellings.”

 

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