Hamas has agreed to observe a 24-hour truce in Gaza after initially rejecting a similar Israeli offer, as fighting resumed over the weekend and the two sides wrangled over the terms of a lull that international diplomats had hoped could be expanded into a more sustainable truce.
After Israel announced a 24-hour ceasefire late on Saturday, Palestinian militants fired rockets deep into Israel, prompting it to resume an offensive aimed at destroying rocket launchers and cross-border attack tunnels used by Hamas, the Islamic militant group ruling the coastal strip.
But hours after the renewal of hostilities, Hamas said it would be willing to abide by a new 24-hour humanitarian truce ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
The three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday is expected to begin today or tomorrow, depending on the sighting of the new moon.
The ongoing hostilities have prompted rallies in the UK this weekend.
Thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched through London on Saturday and similar sentiments were displayed at a rally in Dewsbury. In Leeds, people gathered yesterday in support of Israel.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the truce would go into effect at 2pm yesterday (noon BST), but shortly after it was to have started, warning sirens wailed in southern Israel and the military said three rockets landed in the area, without causing casualties or damage.
Lt Col Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, did not say if Israel would hold its fire during the time requested by Hamas, but said troops would continue demolishing militant tunnels – the central goal of the Israeli ground operation in Gaza.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, speaking after crisis talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers in Paris on Saturday, urged both sides to extend the cessation of violence in a bid to stem the loss of life.
“The necessity right now is to stop the loss of life and you stop the loss of life by getting this ceasefire to roll over for 12 hours, or 24 hours or 48 hours, and then again and again,” he said.
Israel had offered a 24-hour truce late on Saturday, but Hamas – which has demanded the lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza as well as the release of Palestinian prisoners – rejected it.
Before the announcement of the holiday ceasefire, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri had said any truce must include a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and that tens of thousands of displaced people must be allowed to return to their homes.
Hamas has said it will not halt fire until it wins guarantees that the border blockade, tightened by Israel and Egypt after it seized the territory in 2007, will be lifted.
Any new border arrangements for Gaza would likely give a role to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who reached a power-sharing deal earlier this year with Hamas that was harshly condemned by Israel.
Egypt wants forces loyal to Mr Abbas to be posted on the Gaza side of the border before considering opening its Rafah crossing.
Hamas officials said they do not oppose such an arrangement, but would not surrender control over the group’s thousands-strong security forces, meaning it would remain the de facto power in Gaza.
Comment: Page 10; Struggle to add up human cost: Page 11.