After weeks of fighting and more than 1,500 deaths, some semblance of peace may be coming to Gaza — at least temporarily.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Thursday that an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire would begin at 8 a.m. Friday in Gaza (1 a.m. ET) and would last 72 hours, unless it is extended.
“During this time, the forces on the ground will remain in place,” a joint statement by the United Nations and United States said.
Officials from Israel and Hamas said in text messages that the two sides had accepted the cease-fire, which is meant to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in Gaza caught up in the violence.
Many Gaza residents have seen their neighborhoods hit hard and loved ones killed or wounded since Israel began Operation Protective Edge against Hamas on July 8.
Around half a million people in the small, impoverished territory have been displaced by the conflict, according to the United Nations. That’s about 14% of Gaza’s population of 1.8 million.
The aid during the planned cease-fire will include food, care for the injured and burial of the dead.
Under the truce, Israeli and Palestinian officials should be meeting in Cairo to try to reach “a durable cease-fire,” the U.N. and U.S. statement said. “The parties will be able to raise issues of concern in these negotiations.”
Tunnel demolition to continue
It remains to be seen whether the two sides, which are bitterly opposed on key issues, will be able to reach a breakthrough.
Past cease-fire attempts in the conflict have failed to take hold or lasted only briefly.
Hamas has said it wants an end to Israel’s blockade on Gaza, which restricts the movement of goods and people. It also wants the release of prisoners detained by the Israelis.
Israel, meanwhile, has says it is aiming for the demilitarization of Hamas-controlled Gaza, removing the threat that militant weapons pose to Israeli civilians.
Before the cease-fire plan was announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said Israeli troops would continue destroying Hamas’ network of tunnels that run under the border into Israel with or without a truce.
While “neither side will advance … Israel will be able to continue its defensive operations for those tunnels that are behind its lines,” Kerry explained.
‘A difficult road’
Animosity between the two sides, which have gone to war three times in the past six years, runs deep. Israel, like the United States, designates Hamas as a terrorist organization. Hamas is committed to armed struggle against Israel.
Kerry called planned the talks “a lull of opportunity … to try to find a way to … obtain a sustainable cease-fire,” but admitted there are “no guarantees.” The negotiations will be mediated by Egypt and to include a small American delegation.
As Kerry noted, “Everyone knows it has not been easy to get to this point, and everyone knows it will not be easy to get beyond this point.”
Saeb Erakat, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, a separate group from Hamas, said the talks will include “all Palestinian factions.”
“It’s a difficult road. It’s a bumpy road,” said Erakat, a veteran Palestinian negotiator. “I am hoping against hope that we can do every possible effort with the help of everyone out there in order to ensure that we can reach a permanent cease-fire.”
U.N. official talks of potential war crimes
At least 1,452 people have been killed in Gaza, and 8,360 wounded, during the current conflict, Gaza Ministry of Health spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said. That’s more than the 1,417 Palestinians that the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said died in the 22 days of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which spanned 2008 and 2009.
Those killed in the current hostilities include 327 children and 166 women, the Gaza health ministry reports.
The bloodshed prompted the United Nations’ top human rights official to warn that war crimes may have been committed, accusing Israel of “deliberate defiance of obligations (to) international law.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay referred to the shelling of homes, schools, hospitals and U.N. premises, while insisting, “We cannot allow this impunity, we cannot allow this lack of accountability to go on.”
“None of this appears, to me, to be accidental,” Pillay said.
Pressure is coming from around the world over the growing civilian casualties in the conflict, which Israel says it tries to limit.
Chile, Peru, Brazil and Ecuador have pulled their ambassadors out of Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli offensive. Even the United States — an erstwhile ally of Israel — believes “the Israelis need to do more” to prevent civilian deaths, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters.
‘So much loss of life’
News of the planned cease-fire didn’t halt the violence. Almost immediately afterward, warning sirens went off around Israel — with its military announcing later it had intercepted one rocket from Gaza, while two others landed in the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel has been protected from many of Hamas’ rockets by its Iron Dome defense system, though some have still hit populated areas. That includes a rocket that struck a neighborhood Thursday in Qiryat Gat, about 20 miles from Gaza, seriously injuring a man and setting a car afire, Israeli police said.
Three civilians have been killed in Israel since the conflict began, while many more have been forced to take shelter as rockets rained overhead. Sixty-one Israeli soldiers have been killed during the hostilities, with five of those deaths occurring Thursday evening.
In Gaza, the situation is dire.
Clean water is inaccessible for most. And some 3,600 people have lost their homes.
“We cannot supply electricity” for hospitals, sewage treatment or domestic use, said Fathi al-Sheikh Khalil, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Energy Natural Resources Authority in Gaza. “This is a disaster.”
Sakher Joham is among those Palestinians hoping for an end to the misery.
The violence forced him to flee his home, with his five children and “just the clothes on my back.”
“We are tired, and we have had so much loss of life,” Joham, 32, said of himself and fellow Palestinians. “We want to live with our children a life of dignity, like the rest of the world.”