Gaza residents today used a temporary humanitarian truce agreed to by Israel and Hamas on a UN request to pull out bodies from mounds of rubble and metal of bombed homes, as the Palestinian death toll in the conflict rose to over 1,000 with mostly civilian casualties.
Israel and Hamas agreed to a 12-hour humanitarian truce which the Jewish state later extended by four hours till midnight local time. But shortly after the original truce expired at 1700 GMT, the Israeli military reported three mortar rounds fired from Gaza. Hamas said it fired several rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip, after the initial 12-hour truce ended. It said there was "no agreement" on an extension. "There is no agreement on a four-hour truce," its spokesman said in a statement.
During the original 12-hour ceasefire, Palestinians, frantically scoured through rubble with medics saying over 130 bodies had been retrieved across the Gaza Strip. The discovery of the bodies under mounds of rubble had pushed the Palestinian death toll to over 1,000 in the coastal enclave since the conflict began on July 8.
About 5,870 Palestinians have been wounded in the 19 days of fighting, Gaza health officials say. Three Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip in the early hours of today before the humanitarian truce began, the army said. The new deaths raised the losses on the Israeli military side to 40, along with two civilians and a Thai worker killed during 19 days of conflict.
Israel said it would continue to "locate and neutralise" Hamas tunnels during the pause. So far 31 tunnels have been discovered, with about half destroyed. Before the truce began at 0800 local time, Israeli strikes killed at least 19 Palestinians overnight at a family home near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. Images showed relatives weeping as the bodies of five children were taken to a local morgue.
The Iron Dome defence system intercepted three rockets fired towards the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon overnight.
The truce came as international efforts to negotiate a longer ceasefire continued with foreign ministers from the US, UK, Turkey and Qatar meeting in Paris today. "We all call on parties to extend the humanitarian ceasefire currently in force, by 24 hours that could be renewed," France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters after the meeting, which lasted more than two hours. "We all want to obtain a lasting ceasefire as quickly as possible that addresses both Israeli requirements in terms of security and Palestinian requirements in terms of socio-economic development," said Fabius.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Fabius met with their counterparts from Britain, Germany, Italy, Qatar and Turkey, as well as a representative from the European Union.
As the truce took effect, Palestinians returned to areas where heavy Israeli bombardment had taken place to look for bodies and also started to stock up food supplies. The scene was gruesome with buildings pulverised, cars thrown 50 metres into the air on top of buildings and the facades of some block of flats completely ripped off.
Gazans were "shell shocked" at the scenes of devastation around them as they came out in the streets during the truce to look for essential supplies.
Even as dozens of bodies were pulled out in front of shocked relatives, many more could be buried under the rubble of devastated buildings. "Shell-shocked residents wandered through the neighborhood (Shejaiya), with one local saying that returnees could not even find the location of their houses," Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported.
Yasser Hamdiyya, who has lost four members of his family in the assault so far, came to check on his four-storey building in Shujaiyya. The building used to house 22 people, but upon his return he found only a pile of stones. "At least 20 neighbouring buildings had been leveled as well", he said.
A woman who has taken shelter at a UNRWA school told PTI that she chose to stay at the UN facility with her six children as she could still see Israeli military tanks around. "The roads leading to our neighbourhood in northern Gaza are also blocked by the rubble from devastated buildings making access difficult", she said. "It seems that a tsunami has changed the geography of Shujaiyya," Salim Abu Omar was quoted as saying. "There used to be streets and residential blocks in this area, but they have become a pile of rocks," Omar said. He himself was still waiting with the hope that he could soon visit the rubble of his own house, from where he had fled four days ago. He was afraid to return to his house because Israeli military tanks were stationed in front of the rubble of his home.
Many Gazans reportedly drew comparisons between the ongoing assault on Gaza and the Nakba of 1948, when 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in what became Israel. More than half of Gaza's population comprises of refugees.
At least 120,000 Palestinians have been displaced in the current round of violence, the UN said, with the vast majority taking shelter at the world body's overcrowded facilities. According to rights groups about 80 per cent of the casualties have been civilians, and the UN agency for children UNICEF has said that 192 children had been killed during the conflict.