Humanitarian cease-fire set in Mideast conflict, but will the peace last?
GAZA CITY (CNN) — After weeks of fighting and hundreds of deaths, some semblance of peace may be coming to the Middle East — 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 will begin at 8 a.m. Friday in Gaza (1 a.m. ET). It will last 72 hours — or three days — “unless extended,” the United Nations and United States said in a joint statement.
“During this time, the forces on the ground will remain in place,” the statement said.
Israel has accepted the cease-fire, officials in its prime minister’s office texted CNN. So, too, has Hamas, a spokesman for the militant fundamentalist Islamic organization texted.
Speaking to CNN moments after the announcement, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said it came “after careful deliberations with all the parties.”
The cease-fire is meant to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in Gaza caught up in the violence, some of whom have seen their neighborhoods hit hard and loved ones killed, hurt or displaced. The aid will include things like bringing in food, caring for the injured and burying the dead.
As all this is going on, 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.”
Will they be able to reach a breakthrough?
The past doesn’t suggest such is likely, at least anything that will lead to a solution to issues that Israelis and Palestinians have been grappling with for decades. And the animosity between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, runs especially deep, with both sides accusing each other of putting each others civilians at risk.
John Kerry called the talks — to be mediated by Egypt — “a lull of opportunity … to try to find address ways to obtain a sustainable cease-fire,” while admitting there are “no guarantees.”
As he noted, “Everyone knows it has been easy to get to this point.”
Erakat offered similar sentiments about the latest negotiations, which he said will include “all Palestinian factions” — not just Hamas.
“It’s a difficult road,” said the longtime Palestinian official. “I am hoping against hope that we can (make) every possible effort, with the help of everyone out there, (to) reach a permanent cease-fire.”
The latest round of violence, which started earlier this summer, has been particularly bad. At least 1,432 people have been killed in Gaza during the current conflict, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. 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 ongoing hostilities — which are tied to the Israeli military’s Operation Protective Edge — include 327 children and 166 women, the Gaza health ministry reports.
The bloodshed prompted the United Nations’ top human rights official to warn earlier 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.
The scale of the violence, as well as the international condemnation of it, could drive both sides to peace. But even if it does, some Palestinians — like Samy Bahraqe, who is in a U.N. camp after her home was destroyed — aren’t looking forward to the future.
“Life is meaningless,” Bahraqe said. “… What dreams in life can we have now that everything is ruined?”
More Israeli reservists called up
The news of the cease-fire didn’t stop the violence. Almost immediately afterward, warning sirens went off around Israel — with its military announcing later that it had intercepted one rocket from Gaza, while two others landed in the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel itself has been protected very effectively from Hamas rockets by its Iron Dome defense system, though a few have hit land. That includes a rocket that struck a neighborhood Thursday in Qiryat Gat, which is about 20 miles from Gaza, seriously injuring a man and setting a car afire, Israeli spokesman Mikey Rosenfeld 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. But the brunt of the conflict has been born by Israel’s military, with 56 of its soldiers dying in recent weeks.
They will get reinforcements soon, with the Israel Defense Forces announcing Thursday it is calling up 16,000 additional reservists. That will bring the total number of reservists activated since the start of the operation to 86,000, a military spokeswoman said.
Israel has accused Hamas of hiding weapons, including rockets, in schools and launching attacks from near shelters — a fact that, it says, has contributed to civilian deaths.
Yet many outside Israel aren’t convinced.
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 Thursday.
Still, such calls haven’t stopped the United States from agreeing to Israel’s request to resupply it with several types of ammunition, a U.S. defense official told CNN on condition of anonymity. It’s not an emergency sale, the official said. The items being bought include tank rounds and illumination rounds, the Pentagon said.
Nor will a cease-fire stop Israel as it attempts to destroy Hamas’ network of tunnels that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says is the first phase of the demilitarization of Gaza.
In fact, a State Department official said Thursday evening — after the U.N./U.S. announcement and along the lines of what Netanyahu said earlier in the day — that while forces will “freeze in place,” Israel will be allowed to” act defensively” on the tunnels that are behind current battle lines.
‘We are tired, and we have had so much loss of life’
Meanwhile, Gaza is reeling.
More than 219,000 Palestinians are packed into 86 shelters across Gaza, the U.N. said. That works out to about 12% of all of Gaza’s population.
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.”
Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Gaza Ministry of Health, said health care workers are struggling to deal with the relentless stream of dead and wounded.
“The hospitals in Gaza yesterday had a very difficult time. All the hospital morgues were flooding with dead bodies, and the injured were laying on hospital floors because of the lack of hospital beds,” said Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Gaza Ministry of Health..
Count Sakher Joham among those Palestinians hoping, praying that all this misery ends.
He said that he fled 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.”