Friday 28 October 2016

Israeli Shelling Kills 150 Palestinians as Gaza Truce Collapses

Harinder Mishra/Gaza/Jerusalem

Massive shelling by Israel today killed at least 160 people across the Hamas-ruled Gaza following the collapse of a 72-hour truce shortly after it began, while two of its soldiers died and another was believed to have been abducted by the Palestinian militant group.

The humanitarian ceasefire - brokered by the US and the UN to end more than three weeks of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip - collapsed just two hours after it began this morning.

Within hours, heavy shelling resumed in Rafah and air raid sirens were heard on the Israeli side.

Across Gaza, 160 people were killed or died of their wounds today, including 65 in Rafah and 50 in Khan Yunis, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said. The hostilities today took the Palestinian death toll to over 1,600, mostly civilians.

Israeli forces also shot dead two Palestinians during separate clashes in the northern and central West Bank.

The attacks have injured more than 7,000 Palestinians.

The Palestinian toll in the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza has surpassed that of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 as the conflict entered its 25th day today.

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 1,417 Palestinians were killed during Operation Cast Lead, which was the longest conflict between the two sides lasting 22 days, before the current fighting began.

An Israeli army spokeswoman said 51 rockets and mortar rounds hit Israel today, with another nine rockets shot down by the Iron Dome missile defence system.

Israeli army said two of its soldiers were killed and a third one may have been abducted by militants in the southern Gaza Strip today, raising the death count to 63 soldiers, including two Indian-origin, as compared to 10 in 2008-09. Nearly 400 soldiers have been injured.

Three Israeli civilians and a Thai national also died in rocket and mortar attacks.

"Initial indications suggest that a soldier has been abducted by terrorists in an incident where terrorists breached the ceasefire," Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) spokesman Lt Col Peter Lerner told reporters.

Hamas, which rules the narrow coastal strip, neither confirmed nor denied the abduction of the Israeli soldier. But it said Israel's announcement of the abduction was simply an excuse to "justify Israel's retreat from the truce."

Israel and Hamas have blamed each other for the collapse of the fragile ceasefire.

Meanwhile, Obama asked Hamas to show it is serious about wanting a ceasefire and for the release of the Israeli soldier reported captured earlier in the day.

"I think it's going to be very hard to put a ceasefire back together again if Israelis and the international community can't feel confident that Hamas can follow through on a ceasefire commitment," Obama told reporters.

He said the United States "unequivocally condemned Hamas and the Palestinian factions that were responsible for killing two Israeli soldiers, and abducting a third almost minutes after a ceasefire had been announced."

"I want to make sure that they are listening," Obama said, addressing Hamas.

"If they are serious about trying to trying to resolve this situation, that soldier needs to be unconditionally released, as soon as possible," he said.

"We have also been clear that innocent civilians in Gaza caught in the crossfire have to weigh on our conscience and we have to do more to protect them," he added.

The announcement of the truce was made in a statement released in New Delhi during US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit.

The US blamed Hamas for the breakdown of the 72-hour humanitarian truce, saying the "barbaric" attack by the Palestinian militant group was an "outrageous violation" of the ceasefire.

"The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms today's attack, which led to the killing of two Israeli soldiers and the apparent abduction of another. It was an outrageous violation of the ceasefire negotiated over the past several days, and of the assurances given to the United States and the United Nations," Kerry said.

"Hamas, which has security control over the Gaza Strip, must immediately and unconditionally release the missing Israeli soldier, and I call on those with influence over Hamas to reinforce this message," he said in a statement.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also condemned "in the strongest terms" the reported ceasefire violation by Hamas and demanded that an Israeli soldier captured in Gaza be released immediately.

"The Secretary-General condemns in the strongest terms, the reported violation by Hamas of the mutually agreed humanitarian ceasefire which commenced this morning. He is shocked and profoundly disappointed by these developments," Ban's spokesman said in a statement.

UN special coordinator for Middle East peace Robert Serry said the United Nations was informed by Israel of "a serious incident this morning after the start of the humanitarian ceasefire at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) involving a tunnel behind IDF (army) lines in the Rafah area."

"If corroborated, this would constitute a serious violation of the humanitarian ceasefire... By Gazan militant factions, which should be condemned in the strongest terms," the statement said.

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