JERUSALEM — Under intense diplomatic pressure, Israeli leaders decided late Saturday to extend a halt to hostilities in the Gaza Strip through midnight Sunday, but said their troops would maintain defensive positions and continue to ferret out tunnels from Gaza into Israeli territory.
Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that dominates Gaza, rejected the extension of the temporary cease-fire requested by the United Nations, after renewing rocket fire on Israel on Saturday evening.
“Any humanitarian cease-fire that doesn’t secure the withdrawal of occupation soldiers from inside Gaza’s borders, allow citizens back into homes, and secure the evacuation of the injured is unacceptable,” Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said in a brief statement.
It remains unclear how things will unfold. Twice before in the bloody 19-day battle, Israel embraced cease-fire initiatives only to resume its assault within hours when Hamas did not follow suit. But with the Palestinian death toll topping 1,100 after 147 bodies were recovered from the rubble during Saturday’s lull — and with 42 Israeli soldiers killed in combat — calls for calm have only grown more urgent.
Secretary of State John Kerry, whose plea for a seven-day cease-fire was rebuffed by both sides Friday night, convened Arab and European foreign ministers for another round of talks in Paris to press for an extension of Saturday’s initial 12-hour pause. His calculation seemed to be that a succession of short truces might yet be cobbled together to begin unwinding the conflict.
For Israel, accepting the cease-fire extension looked like a win-win: an opportunity to thwart the threat of tunnels that could be used to attack or kidnap its citizens, without risking more of the civilian casualties that have catapulted world opinion against it. It was also a way for Israel to regain the diplomatic high ground and, if Hamas indeed keeps firing, buttress its argument that its operation is defensive.
Hamas too faced pressure to accept the truce, not only from international negotiators. A quiet Sunday would allow battered Gaza residents to prepare for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that ends the holy month of Ramadan, early this week. It would also give their leaders time to regroup militarily and to press their demands in negotiations for a broader cease-fire agreement.
“The people here in Gaza have had enough, and honestly they are pushing Hamas for a cease-fire,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al Azhar University.
Kerry: No Deal Yet on 7-Day Gaza Truce