By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel eased its assaults in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian rocket fire from the enclave declined sharply on Monday, the military said, with both the United States and United Nations calling for a durable ceasefire.
As international pressure mounted to end a 21-day conflict in which more than 1,000 people have been killed, an Israeli military official said the army would only respond to attacks for an indefinite period.”The situation now is an unlimited truce,” Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brigadier General Motti Almoz, told Israel Radio. “The IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) is free to attack after any fire if there is any.” The Islamist Hamas movement which controls the Gaza Strip said on Sunday it wanted a 24-hour truce to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which started on Monday. In the hours after its announcement, Gaza gradually fell quiet.
However, the lull appeared fragile amid diplomatic tension between Israel and its main sponsor, the United States. Sirens warning of incoming rockets from Gaza sounded in some Israeli communities near the border.
Israeli troops meanwhile continued to hunt and destroy cross-border militant tunnels inside Gaza, and it was not clear if Hamas was ready to agree to a prolonged pause.
A single rocket was fired out of the battered coastal territory at the Israeli city of Ashkelon in the first nine hours of Monday, according to the Israeli military, which said it struck two rocket launchers and a weapon manufacturing site in the northern and central Gaza strip.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said a seven-year-old boy was killed in one of the attacks.
Hamas’s armed wing said it killed two Israeli soldiers in the northern Gaza Strip. An Israeli military spokeswoman said a soldier was wounded there but she knew of no fatalities.
Some residents in Gaza reported they had received a recorded telephone message on Monday which said in Arabic: “Listen Hamas, if you are still alive, you should know that if you continue, we will respond, we will respond violently.”
Israeli leaflets dropped over Gaza listed dozens of names of gunmen from Hamas and its ally, Islamic Jihad, that the military says it has killed since the start of the offensive.
“This list is part of the names of those who thought they could face the might of the Israeli Defense Forces,” read the leaflet, which included a map to a graveyard where the militants were allegedly buried.
U.S. President Barack Obama urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to hold fire unconditionally, while the U.N. Security Council called on both sides to implement a humanitarian truce that stretched beyond Eid.
Netanyahu’s security cabinet met into the early hours of Monday to debate ceasefire proposals and also a possible escalation of the Gaza offensive, which Israel says was needed to halt Hamas rocket fire and destroy its tunnel network. Israeli air, sea and ground attacks have killed some 1,036 Palestinians, mainly civilians and including many children, Gaza officials say. Israel says 43 of its soldiers have died, along with three civilians killed by rocket and mortar fire from Gaza.
Tension between Netanyahu’s government and Washington has flared over U.S. mediation efforts, adding yet another chapter to the prickly relations between the Israeli leader and Obama.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region last week to try to stem the bloodshed, his contacts with Hamas – which Washington formally shuns – facilitated by Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel wants Egypt, which also borders the Gaza Strip and views Hamas as a security threat, to take the lead in curbing the Palestinian Islamists. It worries about Doha and Ankara championing Hamas demands to lift the blockade on the territory. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, challenged a flurry of media leaks by unnamed Israeli officials damning a draft agreement attributed to Kerry as too accommodating of Hamas. The official told reporters U.S. efforts had been mischaracterized.
Obama appeared to link Israel’s core demand for Hamas to be stripped of cross-border rockets and infiltration tunnels, to a peace accord with the Palestinians that is nowhere on the diplomatic horizon.
Repeated U.S.-led negotiations over 20 years have failed to broker a permanent deal. The most recent round collapsed in April, with Palestinians livid over Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank and Israelis furious that Abbas had signed a unity pact with old foe Hamas. “The President stressed the U.S. view that, ultimately, any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza,” the White House said. Qatari Foreign Minister, Khaled Al-Atteya, told Al-Jazeera TV that Israel had not respected a ceasefire agreement that ended the last Gaza war in 2012 and it was time the blockade of Gaza was lifted.
“The demands of Palestinian brothers are fair and they are the minimum demands for a dignified life,” he said.
“We have worked with the U.S secretary of state and we were about to achieve substantial results, and the brothers in Hamas acted positively, but the one who rejected the Kerry proposal was Israel,” he added.
Speaking on Sunday, Netanyahu sounded open to easing conditions for the Gaza Strip’s 1.8 million Palestinians but said this must be “intertwined” with disarming Hamas.
“I think you can’t get social and economic relief for the people of Gaza without having an assured demilitarization,” he told CNN.
Israel says the Palestinians have lost around half of their rockets during the fighting – an account disputed by Hamas – and that army engineers have located and destroyed many of the tunnels from the territory. Those excavations will continue under any short-term truce, Israel says.
A poll broadcast by Israel’s Channel 10 television on Sunday said some 87 percent of respondents wanted Israel to continue the operation until Hamas was toppled.
Another survey, published in the Jerusalem Post newspaper, found that 86.5 percent of Israel’s majority Jews oppose a truce while rocket fire continues and cross-border tunnels remain.
A 2008-2009 three week Israel-Gaza war, in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed, ended with a unilateral ceasefire by Israel, which Hamas eventually accepted.
The main U.N. agency in Gaza, UNRWA, said more than 167,000 displaced Palestinians had taken shelter in its schools and buildings, following repeated calls by Israel for civilians to evacuate whole neighbourhoods ahead of military operations.
(Additional reporting by Amena Bakr in Doha; Writing by Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams; Editing by Toby Chopra and Paul Taylor)