GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel and the Palestinians held their fire early on Monday at the start of a new 72-hour ceasefire proposed by Egypt that took effect at 2100 GMT.
There were no immediate reports of breaches of the ceasefire although Hamas claimed it fired rockets as far as the Tel Aviv area for the first time since a previous truce expired on Friday, just minutes before the new truce took hold.
The Israeli military had no comment but Israeli media said a rocket exploded in an open area in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and at least two other rockets were intercepted in a town just south of that region.
A senior Israeli government official said on Sunday Israeli negotiators would return to Cairo to resume indirect talks with the Palestinians, if the truce held, also confirming the Jewish state had accepted Egypt’s proposal for the new truce.
The Israeli team had flown home on Friday when the sides failed to reach a deal to prolong a previous three-day truce, and hostilities in the month-old conflict resumed.
A Hamas official said Palestinian factions had accepted Egypt’s call and that the Cairo talks would continue. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that these new negotiations would be “the last chance” for a deal.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry urged “both sides to exploit this truce to resume indirect negotiations immediately and work towards a comprehensive and lasting ceasefire agreement”.
The new truce won the praise of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who, in a statement, urged both sides to “avoid any steps which would lead to a return to violence.”
Ban expressed a “strong hope” the truce might lead to a “durable ceasefire for the benefit of all civilian populations and as a starting point to address the underlying grievances on both sides.”
Hamas has demanded an end to Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the coastal territory and the opening of a Gaza seaport - a project Israel says should be dealt with only in any future talks on a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians.
Israeli air strikes and shelling on Sunday killed nine Palestinians in Gaza, including a boy aged 14 and a woman, medics said, in a third day of renewed fighting since the last truce ended.
One air strike destroyed the home of Gaza City’s mayor, Nezar Hijazi, across the street from the Reuters bureau where reporters and cameramen hit the floor as the explosion occurred. There were no casualties in the attack because Israel telephoned warnings to residents in the house and neighbouring buildings.
The Israeli military said it targeted 11 “terror squads” in Gaza, among them gunmen involved in or preparing to fire rockets.
BORDER AREA STRATEGY?
Since the previous ceasefire expired, Palestinian rocket and mortar salvoes have focused on Israeli towns and communities near the Gaza frontier in what seemed a strategy of sapping morale without triggering another ground invasion of tiny Gaza.
A month of war has killed 1,910 Palestinians and 67 Israelis while devastating wide tracts of densely populated Gaza.
Gaza hospital officials say the Palestinian death toll has been mainly civilian since the July 8 launch of Israel’s military campaign to quell Gaza rocket fire.
Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians, while heavy losses among civilians and the destruction of thousands of homes in Gaza have drawn international condemnation.
The violence of the past three days had also been less intense than at the war’s outset, with reduced firing on both sides.
In the talks that convened in Cairo earlier this month, Egypt has been meeting separately with each party, as neither recognizes the other. Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist and Israel shuns Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
Another sticking points in their talks has been Israel’s demand for guarantees that Hamas would not use any reconstruction supplies sent to Gaza to build tunnels of the sort Palestinian fighters have used to infiltrate Israel.
Hamas has demanded an end to the economically stifling blockade of the enclave imposed by both Israel and Egypt, which also sees the Islamist movement as a security threat.
Israel has resisted easing access to Gaza, suspecting Hamas could then restock with weapons from abroad.
Israeli tanks and infantry left the enclave on Tuesday after the army said it had completed its main mission of destroying more than 30 tunnels dug by militants for cross-border attacks.
Though Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor does not work at such short ranges there have been few casualties in border towns largely because as many as 80 percent of the region’s 5,000 residents fled before last week’s ceasefire.
Some said on Sunday they would not return to their communities unless rocket fire from Gaza came to a halt, a condition that could raise pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had said one of the war’s goals was to restore calm to the area.
Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Eric Walsh
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