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Gaza death toll mounts to 940 as more bodies pulled out in 12-hour truce

Gaza/Jerusalem, Jul 26 (PTI) : A 12-hour “humanitarian window” began Saturday after Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza agreed to a United Nations request for a pause in fighting, even as 76 more bodies were recovered as a truce began.

The Palestinian death toll in the 19-day conflict is now over 940, while there have been 38 Israeli deaths.

The bodies were retrieved in the first few hours of the ”humanitarian” truce that came into effect at 0500 GMT as top world diplomats in Paris worked on a longer-term ceasefire.

Palestinian emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said 76 bodies had been brought to hospitals in north, central and southern Gaza, as well as Gaza City, but that the toll was expected to rise even further.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said late Friday night that there was “national consensus on a humanitarian truce....for 12 hours on Saturday”.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) later confirmed the truce but vowed to continue to “locate and neutralise” Hamas tunnels during the truce that started at 0500 GMT Saturday.

”We will respond if terrorists choose to exploit this time to attack IDF personnel or fire at Israeli civilians,” the Israeli army said in a statement.

The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said that so far 940 people, most of them civilians, have been killed.

Two Israeli soldiers were also killed in fighting taking the death toll on the Israeli side to 38.

Meanwhile, international efforts to negotiate a longer seven-day ceasefire continued with foreign ministers from the US, UK, Turkey and Qatar meeting in Paris today to try to negotiate a longer-term truce.

US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday said that he was still confident of a longer ceasefire, despite media reports that Israel had rejected his proposal.

The announcement of the humanitarian window came shortly after Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon warned that ground operations in Gaza could soon be broadened ”significantly”.

”You need to be ready for the possibility that very soon we will instruct the military to significantly broaden the ground operation in Gaza,” he told soldiers.

Hamas has insisted that it would not agree to any long-term truce that did not lead to an end to Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and made provisions to open crossings to allow free movement of people and goods.

Palestinian militants also fired a barrage of rockets out of Gaza, triggering sirens across much of southern and central Israel. Israel's military said its Iron Dome missile shield had intercepted and destroyed several rockets.

Israel launched its military offensive on July 8 with the declared objective of stopping Hamas from firing rockets into Israel. It has since extended its operation to destroy tunnels dug by militants to infiltrate Israel.

According to the UN, more than 118,000 people are now sheltering in UN schools and people are running out of food.

Meanwhile, the violence also spread to the West Bank with seven Palestinian protesters being killed in clashes with Israeli police in the last 48 hours.

Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinian teenagers early this morning in separate clashes in the north and south of the West Bank.

Protests were held in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem neighbourhoods on Friday in what was described by Palestinian leaders as a “Day of Rage” against Israel.

Three protesters were killed by Israeli soldiers Friday near the southern city of Hebron, while Israeli settlers fired on a group of Palestinians, killing one person in Nablus. One more protester was killed in subsequent clashes there.

Earlier, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called for an immediate “humanitarian pause” lasting through the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr.

”On this, the last Friday of Ramadan, I call for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian pause in the fighting in Gaza and Israel. This pause would last through the Eid al-Fitr holiday period,” he had said in a statement Friday.

The UN chief's appeal came after several meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian and Qatari officials aimed at ending the bloodshed.

On Friday night, Kerry had said no deal has been reached to call a halt to the intense fighting in Gaza but efforts were on.

”We don't yet have that final framework, but none of us are stopping,” he said at a press conference in Cairo.

Kerry was in Paris on Saturday to hold further talks with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey, which exert influence over the militant Hamas rulers of Gaza.