Temporary lull in Gaza fighting as US, UN up pressure for truce

By Hazel Ward, AFP

JERUSALEM–Fighting subsided in war-torn Gaza Monday at the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr as world powers ramped up pressure on the warring sides to immediately end their 21-day confrontation.

Following increasingly urgent calls by the U.N. and the U.S. for an “immediate ceasefire,” a senior source in the West Bank said Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was heading to Cairo along with representatives of Hamas for fresh talks on ending the violence in Gaza. Earlier U.S. President Barack Obama phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to demand an “immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire,” in a call echoed several hours later by the U.N. Security Council. As diplomatic efforts intensified to broker an end to the bloodletting which has claimed over a thousand lives, both sides appeared to have settled into an undeclared ceasefire arrangement with the skies over Gaza mostly quiet. The army said two rockets had struck Israel since midnight (2100 GMT) while in Gaza, an AFP correspondent confirmed there had been no overnight air strikes, although sporadic raids resumed in the afternoon with a 4-year-old boy and another person killed by tank shelling near the northern town of Jabaliya.

Another three succumbed to their wounds overnight, raising the death toll in Gaza to 1,037. ‘Eid of martyrs’ There was little mood for celebration in Gaza City as the three-day festival of Eid al-Fitr that ends the holy fasting month of Ramadan got under way.

Several hundred people arrived for early-morning prayers at the Al-Omari mosque, bowing and solemnly whispering their worship. But instead of going to feast with relatives, most went straight home while others went to pay their respects to the dead. Among them was Ahed Shamali whose 16-year-old son who was killed by a tank shell several days ago.

“He was just a kid,” he said, standing by the grave. “This is the Eid of the martyrs.” ‘Israel was very close (to a) unilateral cease-fire’

Early on Monday, the U.N. Security Council appealed for both sides to accept an “immediate and unconditional humanitarian cease-fire” to permit the urgent delivery of aid, in a non-binding statement which elicited disappointment from the Palestinian envoy. The U.N. statement came after Obama phoned Netanyahu to stress “the strategic imperative” of implementing an immediate humanitarian truce.

“Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack,’” Ari Shavit wrote in Haaretz, saying the anger was over his decision to reportedly formulate an initiative along the lines proposed by Hamas allies Turkey and Qatar. The decision “to go hand in hand with Qatar and Turkey, and formulate a framework amazingly similar to the Hamas framework, was catastrophic. It put wind in the sails of Hamas’ political leader Khaled Meshaal,” he said. “Israel was very close last night to a decision to announce a unilateral ceasefire,” wrote Nahum Barnea in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot. “And then came Obama’s telephone call to Netanyahu, and the tension between the Israeli government and the U.S. administration turned into a crisis, which is now threatening to disrupt the path to a ceasefire,” he wrote.