JERUSALEM – Israel and Hamas agreed to a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire to start this morning, though Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned there were “no guarantees” the lull in violence would bring an end to the 24-day-old Gaza war.
The announcement came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to destroy Hamas' tunnel network “with or without a cease-fire” and as the Palestinian death toll soared past 1,400.
Noting the difficulties that lay ahead, Kerry said: “This is not a time for congratulations or joy or anything except a serious determination – a focus by everybody to try to figure out the road ahead,” Kerry said. “This is a respite. It is a moment of opportunity, not an end.”
At least four short humanitarian cease-fires have been announced since the conflict began, but each has been broken by renewed fighting.
A joint statement released simultaneously in New Delhi, where Kerry is traveling, and at U.N. headquarters in New York, said the U.S. and U.N. had gotten assurances that all parties to the conflict had agreed to an unconditional cease-fire.
Israeli and Palestinian delegations were expected to travel immediately to Cairo for talks with the Egyptian government aimed at reaching an end to the conflict.
During the cease-fire, Kerry said, Israel will be able to continue its defense operations to destroy tunnels that are behind its territorial lines. The Palestinians will be able to receive food, medicine and humanitarian assistance, bury their dead, treat the wounded and travel to their homes. The time also will be used to make repairs to water and energy systems.
“We hope this moment can be grabbed by both parties, but no one can force them to do that,” Kerry said.
“Israel has to live without terror and tunnels and rockets and sirens going on through the day,” he said. “Palestinians have to be able to live freely and share in the rest of the world and live a life that is different from the one they have long suffered.”
The Palestinian delegation is expected to include members of Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization and cannot be negotiated with directly. So if the Israelis and Palestinians meet face to face, the Hamas members will not participate in those talks.
The Egyptians will be the go-between for the sides and will help coordinate, a senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official wasn't allowed to discuss the issue publicly.
At least 1,441 Palestinians have been killed, three-quarters of them civilians, since hostilities began July 8, according to Gaza health ministry officials – surpassing the at least 1,410 Palestinians killed in Israel's last major invasion in 2009, according to Palestinian rights groups.
Israel says 56 soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a Thai farm worker have died – far more than the 13 Israeli deaths in the previous campaign.