JERUSALEM – Israel and Hamas began observing a five-hour humanitarian cease-fire on Thursday, after fighting raged until moments before the start of the pause and Israel vowed it would retaliate if Hamas breaks the calm.
At least three people were killed in the southern Gaza town of Rafah when an Israeli tank shell hit a house, Palestinian officials said, and Israel’s military said it thwarted an attack by more than a dozen Gaza militants who tunneled under the border.
The pause comes on the 10th day of fighting that has seen Israel carry out more than a thousand air strikes on the embattled Palestinian territory as Hamas has fired a similar number of rockets into Israel, extending their range to the country’s economic and cultural heartland.
The cross-border fighting has so far killed more than 230 Palestinians and an Israeli, according to officials.
The two sides agreed to the cease-fire following a request by the United Nations, to allow Palestinians to stock up on food, water and other necessities.
As the cease-fire began, the Bank of Palestine opened one of its branches in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood, with hundreds of people lining up to withdraw money.
While both Israel and Hamas said they would respect the pause in fighting, Israel said it would not hesitate to retaliate for any attacks.
“If the humanitarian window is exploited by Hamas for attacks against Israel, we will respond,” Israel’s chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Motti Almoz, told Israeli Channel 2. “If we need to attack we will act without hesitation.”
Fighting continued early Thursday in the lead-up to the cease-fire, with the military saying it foiled an attack by 13 militants who sneaked into Israel through a tunnel from Gaza. Israeli aircraft struck the fighters at the mouth of the tunnel some 250 meters (820 feet) inside Israel, near a kibbutz.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said the military believed at least one militant was killed in the strike and that the remaining fighters appeared to have returned to Gaza through the tunnel. Footage released by the military showed a number of individuals creeping slowly toward what appeared to be a hole in the ground. A separate shot showed an explosion from an airstrike on the tunnel entrance.
Lerner said the attack “could have had devastating consequences” and said the militants were armed with “extensive weapons,” including rocket-propelled grenades.
Hamas’ military wing claimed responsibility for the infiltration, saying in a statement that “during the withdrawal after the completion of its mission,” the militants were struck by “jet fighters.” It said the group returned safely, however, and that no one was killed.
Lerner said the cease-fire would go ahead despite the incident. It was the second time militants attempted to sneak into Israel in this round of fighting. Last week, four fighters were killed when they infiltrated Israel from the sea.
The military also said 15 rockets were fired at Israel Thursday morning, including toward areas in the center, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) from the Gaza Strip.
In fighting early Thursday, Israeli aircraft struck 37 targets, including the homes of senior Hamas leaders Fathi Hamad and Khalil al-Haya, the military said.
The killing of the three people by the tank shell in Rafah was confirmed by the Hamas-run police and Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra.
The Gaza Interior Ministry had earlier said that 30 houses were struck in the Israeli raids. Four people were killed and a 75-year-old woman died of wounds suffered the day before, the ministry said.
Egypt has meanwhile resumed efforts to broker a longer-term truce after its initial plan was rejected by Hamas earlier in the week. Hamas, which seized Gaza seven years ago, wants international guarantees that the territory’s blockade by Israel and Egypt will be eased significantly and that Israel will release Palestinian prisoners.
A senior Hamas official said the group’s deputy leader, Moussa Abu Marzouk, met with Egyptian officials Wednesday night to present Hamas’ demands for a cease-fire, which were also delivered to Jordan and the U.N. The official said Hamas wants countries other than Egypt to be involved in forging an agreement to end the fighting, a sign of Hamas’ mistrust of Cairo.
Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, has often served as a mediator between Israel and Hamas. But Hamas’ position vis-a-vis Egypt has been weakened following the ouster last year of President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist and close ally of Hamas.
Egypt’s new leaders have since launched a sweeping crackdown on Hamas, shutting down a network of smuggling tunnels along the border that were the Islamic militant group’s key economic lifeline – and weapons supply route.
The official spoke of condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the diplomatic steps with the media.
Laub reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed to this report.