NEW DELHI — Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations announced early Friday that Israel and Hamas had agreed to a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire in the Gaza conflict.
“The United Nations representative in Jerusalem, Special Coordinator Robert Serry, has received assurances that all parties have agreed to an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza,” Kerry said in a joint statement with Ban.
The surprise announcement of the agreement — reached while Kerry had just begun a visit to India — came amid growing international pressure for even a temporary halt to the bitter fighting between Israel and the militants of Hamas and its affiliates in Gaza, the Mediterranean enclave of 1.7 million.
More than 1,400 people in Gaza have been killed, and the Israeli assaults have caused deepening tensions with the United States and the United Nations. A number of U.N. facilities in Gaza, notably schools serving as shelters, have been hit in deadly strikes, even as Israel has denied intentionally attacking them.
The cease-fire was to begin at 8 a.m. local time [1 a.m. Boston time] Friday. It was to last for 72 hours unless it is extended.
“During this time the forces on the ground will remain in place,” said the announcement, meaning that Israeli troops who have entered Gaza can remain. As soon as it takes hold, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will head to Cairo for talks.
“We urge all parties to act with restraint until this humanitarian cease-fire begins, and to fully abide by their commitments during the cease-fire,” the statement said.
Shortly after the announcement, word came from Hamas confirming that it was in agreement.
“In response to the United Nations call and due to the circumstances of our people,” said the statement by Izzat al-Risheq, a Hamas official based in Lebanon, “the Palestinian resistance factions agree on a mutual humanitarian truce starting at 8 a.m. Friday, as long as the other side is committed to it.”
The statement by Kerry and Ban said the cease-fire was “critical to giving innocent civilians a much-needed reprieve from violence.” During the period, it said, “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. Overdue repairs on essential water and energy infrastructure could also continue during this period.”
In addition, the statement said: “Israeli and Palestinian delegations will immediately be going to Cairo for negotiations with the government of Egypt, at the invitation of Egypt, aimed at reaching a durable cease-fire. The parties will be able to raise all issues of concern in these negotiations.”
The statement thanked “key regional stakeholders for their vital support of this process, and count on a continued collaborative international effort to assist Egypt and the parties reach a durable cease-fire as soon as possible.”
There had been little hint earlier in the day that a cease-fire plan was in the works — on the contrary, Israel called up more reservists in anticipation of more fighting.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had said he would reject any proposal that prevented the Israeli military from completing the destruction of Hamas’ tunnel network, a stated objective of Israel’s invasion.
At least nine Palestinians were killed in Israeli airstrikes and shelling earlier Thursday, according to health officials in Gaza, and by evening the Palestinian death toll totaled at least 1,410, with many civilians among the dead.
Israel began its aerial offensive on July 8 and sent in ground forces on July 17, with the stated goals of quelling heavy rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and severely damaging Hamas’ fortified tunnel network.
On the Israeli side, 56 soldiers have been killed in the ground war and two Israeli civilians and a Thai agricultural worker have been killed by rocket and mortar fire.
Earlier on Thursday at the U.N. Security Council, two top officials described a stark portrait of death and deprivation in Gaza from more than three weeks of war. Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator, exhorted both sides to spare civilian targets and said more than 250 of the Gazan dead were children. Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, which provides basic services to Palestinian refugees, said by telephone from Gaza that his agency had been overwhelmed by the urgent needs of nearly a quarter of a million people displaced by the Israeli assaults. He also said eight UNRWA workers were among the dead.
Ban has spoken with growing anger about the attacks on UNRWA facilities in Gaza, all but blaming Israel.
The White House on Thursday came closer than it has since the conflict began to criticizing Israel’s actions, saying it was not disputing the conclusion by Ban and other U.N. officials that Israel had been responsible for the shelling of a UNRWA school in Gaza earlier this week.
“It does not appear there’s a lot of doubt about whose artillery was involved in this incident,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “What we are simply asking the Israelis to do — in fact, urging the Israelis to do — is to do more to live up to the standards that they have set for their own military operations to protect the lives of innocent civilians.”
Earnest called the strike on the school “totally unacceptable and totally indefensible.”