CAIRO — Israel and the militant group Hamas agreed to a 12-hour lull in fighting beginning early today, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that a longer cease-fire in the Gaza Strip could be finalized before a Muslim holiday beginning early next week.
But Israel rejected a proposal by the United States and United Nations for a seven-day truce. Its defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, put troops on notice Friday that ground operations in the coastal enclave could be expanded.
In Gaza, meanwhile, the Palestinian death toll from the 18-day Israeli offensive rose to at least 860, mostly civilians, including many women and children. Six more Palestinians died in scattered clashes across the West Bank that pointed to a potential widening of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza.
Kerry, who has been in the region since Monday pursuing intensive talks, held an evening news conference in the Egyptian capital with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, all of whom have been working to prod Israel and Hamas into accepting a temporary cease-fire in hostilities while larger issues are negotiated.
Israel's rejection of the seven-day cease-fire followed an hours-long session of its security Cabinet, an inner circle of senior government officials who held a rare meeting on the Jewish Sabbath to debate the truce proposal. Kerry visited Israel and the West Bank earlier this week to lay out the plan.
Hamas, which last week rejected an Egyptian cease-fire plan that Israel accepted, has been insisting on an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza before it would agree to a truce. Kerry acknowledged that all the pieces were not yet in place for a seven-day cease-fire to honor the Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that begins Sunday or Monday and marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. A truce coinciding with the feast, one of the most important on the Islamic calendar, would carry strong symbolic weight.
But though a deal wasn't ready, Kerry said, "I will tell you this: None of us here are stopping."
The secretary played down the significance of Israel's rejection, saying the vote was not in response to a formal proposal. Israel has been pressing for terms that would allow its forces to continue destroying Hamas tunnels into Israel while observing a cease-fire.
"The whole world is watching a tragic moment unfold, and wondering when is everybody going to come to their senses," said Kerry, who was to travel onward to Paris to continue talks today with Turkey, Qatar, France and Britain. "The basic outline is approved by everybody. People would like to see the violence end."
Kerry's proposal begins with a one-week cease-fire and then moves to broader negotiations over the status of Gaza. Kerry made clear that he believes the two sides need to complete their negotiations over the creation of an independent Palestinian state to finally resolve the problem.
A Hamas spokesman was quoted by local news agencies as saying the group had agreed to the 12-hour humanitarian truce beginning this morning.
An Israeli military statement said that the army would respond if Palestinian militants fired more rockets at Israel or attacked soldiers and that the army would continue to look for tunnels in Gaza.
Also Friday, the Israeli military announced it had established that a soldier who had previously been described as missing had been killed in action. Hamas had claimed to have captured the soldier, which would have given the militant group a valuable bargaining chip. It never produced any proof the soldier was alive.
There are signs that the conflict is gaining support among Palestinians. On Friday, the main Muslim prayer day and a traditional day of protests, the West Bank-based Fatah movement called for a "day of rage" in solidarity with Gaza.
Demonstrations were smaller than those on Thursday night, when thousands of Palestinians clashed with Israeli forces in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and a main crossing point between Israel and the West Bank. But in an escalation of force, Israeli troops used live ammunition against demonstrators, Palestinian witnesses said.
The Palestinian protests, the most serious unrest in the West Bank since the start of the Gaza offensive, were sparked by at least 15 deaths at a U.N. shelter in northern Gaza on Thursday. Hamas accused Israel of striking the facility. Israel's military said the incident was still under investigation, suggesting that errant rocket fire from militants might have been to blame.
Hamas and other fighters in Gaza unleashed a new volley of rockets at Israel, most of them intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Several were shot down in the general vicinity of Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv.