Gaza residents on Saturday used a 12-hour humanitarian truce agreed to by Israel and Hamas on a UN request to pull out several bodies from mounds of rubble and metal of bombed homes, as the Palestinian death toll climbed to nearly 1,000.
With the temporary ceasefire on, Palestinians frantically scoured through the rubble with medics saying 85 bodies had been retrieved across the Gaza Strip.
The discovery of the bodies under mounds of rubble had pushed the death toll to 985 Palestinians killed in the coastal enclave since the conflict began on July 8.
On the Israeli side, 37 soldiers have been killed, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai foreign worker.
Israel said it would continue to “locate and neutralise” Hamas tunnels during the pause, which began at 0800 local time. So far 31 tunnels have been discovered, with about half destroyed, Israeli’s military said.
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Before the truce began, Israeli strikes killed at least 19 Palestinians overnight at a family home near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Images showed relatives weeping as the bodies of five children were taken to a local morgue.
Two Israeli soldiers were also killed overnight, Israel’s military confirmed.
The Iron Dome defence system intercepted three rockets fired towards the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon overnight.
The truce came as international efforts to negotiate a longer seven-day ceasefire continued with foreign ministers from the US, UK, Turkey and Qatar meeting in Paris on Saturday to try to negotiate a longer-term truce.
“We all call on parties to extend the humanitarian ceasefire,” France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters after the meeting.
As the truce took effect, Palestinians returned to areas where heavy Israeli bombardment had taken place to look for bodies and also started to stock up food supplies.
The scene was gruesome with buildings completely pulverised, cars thrown 50 metres into the air on top of buildings and the facades of some block of flats completely ripped off.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said late last night that there was “national consensus on a humanitarian truce….for 12 hours on Saturday”. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) later confirmed the truce.
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday said that he was still confident of a longer ceasefire.
The announcement of the humanitarian window came shortly after Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned that ground operations in Gaza could soon be broadened “significantly”.
“You need to be ready for the possibility that very soon we will instruct the military to significantly broaden the ground operation in Gaza,” Ya’alon told soldiers.
Hamas has insisted that it would not agree to any long-term truce that did not lead to an end to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and made provisions to open crossings to allow free movement of people and goods.
Israel launched its military offensive with the declared objective of stopping Hamas from firing rockets into Israel. It has since extended its operation to destroy tunnels dug by militants to infiltrate Israel.
According to the UN, more than 118,000 people are now sheltering in UN schools and people are running out of food.
Meanwhile, the violence also spread to the West Bank with seven Palestinian protesters being killed in clashes with Israeli police in the last 48 hours.
Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinian teenagers early this morning in separate clashes in the north and south of the West Bank.
Protests were held in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem neighbourhoods yesterday in what was described by Palestinian leaders as a “Day of Rage” against Israel.
Three protesters were killed by Israeli soldiers yesterday near the southern city of Hebron, while Israeli settlers fired on a group of Palestinians, killing one person in Nablus. One more protester was killed in subsequent clashes there.
Earlier, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called for an immediate “humanitarian pause” lasting through the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr.
“On this, the last Friday of Ramadan, I call for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian pause in the fighting in Gaza and Israel. This pause would last through the Eid al-Fitr holiday period,” he had said in a statement yesterday.
The UN chief’s appeal came after several meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian and Qatari officials aimed at ending the bloodshed.
Kerry last night said no deal has been reached to call a halt to the intense fighting in Gaza but efforts were on.
“We don’t yet have that final framework, but none of us are stopping,” he said at a press conference in Cairo.
Kerry is in Paris today to hold further talks with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey, which exert influence over the militant Hamas rulers of Gaza.