The Israeli cabinet unanimously rejected a U.S.-backed plan for a weeklong halt in fighting between Israel and Hamas, dealing a blow to the Obama administration's effort to end the conflict in Gaza and to revive a broader push for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The failure to implement a cease-fire before a self-imposed deadline this weekend comes as the conflict threatens to take a new, uglier turn. Thousands of Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli forces in the West Bank following a strike on a U.N. school in Gaza that left 16 dead and hundreds wounded. With the fighting now in its third week, more than 800 people -- mostly civilians -- have died in Gaza. Fighting has also claimed the lives of 35 Israelis, the bulk of whom were soldiers.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats were upbeat about the talks right up until the vote. Addressing reporters alongside U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Kerry said he could not announce a full-blown cease-fire agreement before departing Cairo for meetings in Paris on Saturday because Israelis and Palestinians could not agree on the "terminology" of a cease-fire. Shoukry said the warring parties need more time to reach an understanding.
Israeli officials were reportedly adamant that any agreement allow Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops to continue destroying Hamas tunnels in Gaza. These tunnels -- which Hamas fighters use to infiltrate Israel and carry out operations -- have become a focus of IDF operations during the conflict that began July 8. Israeli forces were reportedly surprised by the networks' full extent, and destroying them is now a key IDF objective.
Still, Kerry says he will press on in his urging to end the fighting. A U.S. official told Reuters that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to a 12-hour "humanitarian cease-fire" to commence Saturday morning as a "down payment."
"None of us here are stopping," Kerry said. "We have a framework that will work."
Kerry is promoting a two-step diplomatic initiative that would begin with a seven-day truce. Once the fighting stops, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators would join other key regional and international powers in Cairo for broader talks about the Gaza Strip's economic, political, and security future.
Though Israeli media reported that the American proposal was unanimously rejected by the Israeli cabinet, Kerry downplayed the setback's magnitude, insisting that the Israeli government's discussion is focused around concepts and that no final proposal was submitted.
"Gaps have been significantly narrowed," Kerry said. "It can be achieved if we work through some of the issues that are important for the parties."
Hamas's response to Kerry's cease-fire outline is unclear. It rejected an earlier Egyptian proposal, which Israel had accepted, saying it wasn't consulted and that the plan didn't address its demands to lift the blockade on Gaza and release more prisoners from Israeli jails. In an interview Thursday with the BBC, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said Hamas would silence its weapons when the blockade is lifted. "We want a cease-fire as soon as possible that's parallel with the lifting of the siege on Gaza. That is the demand of the Gazan people," he said.
On Thursday, a strike targeting a U.N. school in Gaza providing shelter to Palestinians fleeing the violence left 16 people dead and more than 100 wounded, including women and children. Even though there's no definitive proof which side is responsible for the incident, the West Bank erupted in protest overnight.
Thousands of West Bank protesters clashed with Israeli security forces Friday. At least five Palestinian protesters were killed. Meanwhile, Israel continued its operations in Gaza and the IDF said that one of its soldiers, Staff Sgt. Guy Levy, 21, was killed in Gaza by Palestinian "terrorists" operating near a school administered by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Palestine (UNRWA). More than 140,000 Palestinians are sheltering from the fighting in UNRWA facilities.
"At noon today, terrorists fired mortars & anti-tank missiles from near an UNRWA school in Gaza, killing an IDF soldier," according to a tweet from the IDF spokesman. "Our initial reports from the field indicate that terrorists also opened fire from within the UNRWA school."
Shortly after the announcement that the Israeli government had rejected a cease-fire proposal, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told his troops "to be prepared for the possibility IDF will be ordered to expand Gaza ground operation very soon."
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