JERUSALEM – Israel and Hamas agreed Thursday to a 72-hour “humanitarian cease-fire” in the fighting in Gaza that’s to be followed by immediate negotiations on a durable truce, the first sign that diplomacy finally may bring an end to three weeks of bloodshed that has claimed the lives of more than 1,400 Palestinians, at least 56 Israeli soldiers and three civilians inside Israel.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced the agreement in a joint statement that said the cease-fire would to take effect at 8 a.m. local time today.
Under the terms of the cease-fire, Kerry told reporters in India, where he is on a diplomatic visit, Israel will be allowed to continue to search for Hamas-built tunnels “that are behind its lines,” but both sides “are expected to cease all offensive military activities, and neither side will advance beyond its current locations.”
As soon as the cease-fire has gone into effect, Kerry said, Egypt will invite both sides to Cairo “to engage in serious and focused negotiations to address the underlying causes of this conflict.”
Kerry called the three-day break in violence “a lull of opportunity” and cautioned that there are no guarantees that a long-term truce will result. “Everyone knows that it will not be easy to get beyond this point,” he said.
“While we are grateful that the violence and the bloodshed has the opportunity to stop for more than 24 hours, it is up to the parties – all of them – to take advantage of this moment,” he said.
The U.N.’s Middle East envoy, Robert Serry, received assurances that “all parties have agreed to an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire” during which “civilians in Gaza will receive urgently needed humanitarian relief,” bury the dead, care for injured, restock food supplies, and repair damaged power and water lines, according to the announcement.
There was no immediate comment from Israel, but Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters that, in response to a request from the U.N. and “in consideration of the situation of our people,” Hamas and allied factions had agreed to the cease-fire “as long as the other side abides by it.”
Earlier in the day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had vowed to reject any cease-fire that required Israel to halt its tunnel hunt.
In public remarks at the start of a Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu had been categorical about the tunnel search, the rationale for Israeli troops entering Gaza after days of aerial bombardment. “I will not agree to any proposal that does not allow the IDF to complete this work which is important for the security of Israel’s citizens,” he said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces by their acronym.
Hamas had opposed any truce that would allow Israel to continue destroying the tunnels.
“The tunnels that the resisters are using in the battle with Israel are part of the weapons of the resistance, and the weapons of the resistance are not up for discussion,” Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, said in an interview this week.