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U.S., U.N. announce humanitarian cease-fire in Mideast conflict

GAZA CITY — [Breaking news update at 5:36 p.m. ET]

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Thursday that an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire wll begin at 8 a.m. local time in Gaza. It will last for a period of 72 hours unless extended, they said in a joint statement. During this time the forces on the ground will remain in place.

[Previous story published at 4:06 p.m. ET]

Calls for accountability in Gaza conflict increase as death toll climbs

With the number of civilians killed in Gaza rising by the day, the United Nations’ top human rights official warned that war crimes may have been committed in the fight between Israel and Hamas — a struggle that shows no signs of waning.

At least 1,432 people have been killed in Gaza during the current conflict, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health — a figure that is higher than the 1,417 Palestinians that the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said died in the 22 days of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, which spanned 2008 and 2009.

Those killed in the ongoing hostilities — which are tied to the Israeli military’s Operation Protective Edge — include 327 children and 166 women, the Gaza health ministry reports.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay sounded an alarm Thursday about the high numbers of civilian casualties, as well as how they’ve occurred. She called for “real accountability considering the increasing evidence of war crimes.”

Pillay specifically pointed to the six United Nations schools in Gaza that have been struck, resulting in civilians’ deaths. The United Nations has blamed Israel for the strikes, but Israel says its military only responded to fire and did not target the schools.

“The shelling and bombing of UN schools which have resulted in the killing and maiming of frightened women and children and civilian men, including UN staff, seeking shelter from the conflict are horrific acts and may possibly amount to war crimes,” Pillay said in a statement.

Pillay didn’t excuse the Hamas militants, either. She once again condemned the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel, and the placement of military assets close to densely populated areas.

But the biggest concern appeared to be the shelling of the schools.

“If civilians cannot take refuge in UN schools, where can they be safe?” Pillay asked. “They leave their homes to seek safety — and are then subjected to attack in the places they flee to. This is a grotesque situation.”

Another top U.N. official, Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos, said there is a need for Israel and Hamas to comply with humanitarian and human rights law.

“Each party must be held accountable to international standards; not the standards of the other party,” she said in remarks to the U.N. Security Council.

The calls for accountability didn’t just come from the United Nations.

“Civilian casualties in Gaza have been too high. It is clear the Israelis need to do more” to prevent civilian deaths, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he’s hopeful there can be a cease-fire that will bring peace — even temporarily to the region.

Yet Samy Bahraqe, a Palestinian in a U.N. camp after her home was destroyed, says she’s lost hope, in everything, already.

“Life is meaningless,” Bahraqe said. “… What dreams in life can we have now that everything is ruined?”

More Israeli troops

The Israeli military said Thursday that it is calling up 16,000 additional reservists, bolstering its forces for its fight against Hamas in Gaza after a request for more ammunition from the United States.

The addition brings the total number of reservists Israel has called up since the beginning of the operation against Hamas to 86,000, a military spokeswoman said.

After more than three weeks of fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel would complete its goal of destroying Hamas’ network of tunnels with or without a cease-fire. Netanyahu said this is just the first phase of the demilitarization of Gaza.

While U.S. officials have called on Israel to do more to protect civilians, the United States has agreed to Israel’s request to resupply it with several types of ammunition, a U.S. defense official told CNN on condition of anonymity. It’s not an emergency sale, the official said. The items being bought include tank rounds and illumination rounds, the Pentagon said.

Shells land near U.N. school

As has happened day after day after day, Hamas continued to launch rockets Thursday — many of which Israel intercepted, though some did land.

One rocket hit inside a neighborhood in Qiryat Gat, which is about 20 miles from Gaza on the Israeli side of the border. One man was seriously injured and a car caught on fire, Israeli spokesman Mikey Rosenfeld said.

The man suffered from shrapnel injuries and has been taken to the hospital.

Another rocket hit in an open field.

Fifty-six Israeli soldiers have died, according to the military, and three civilians have been killed in Israel since the conflict began. Many more citizens have been forced to take shelter, as rockets rained overhead.

Still, the level of death and destruction doesn’t compare with what’s happening in Gaza, where health workers are struggling to deal with the relentless stream of dead and wounded.

“The hospitals in Gaza yesterday had a very difficult time. All the hospital morgues were flooding with dead bodies, and the injured were laying on hospital floors because of the lack of hospital beds,” said Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Gaza Ministry of Health..

Gaza’s health ministry said that Thursday’s toll included 11 people — among them three children — killed by a strike on a house in the Nurisat camp in central Gaza. Another 46 were injured.

Meanwhile, a number of shells fell Thursday next to a U.N. school housing displaced residents — a day after another school-turned-shelter was hit by artillery killing more than a dozen people.

“The school itself was not targeted, it was nearby the school,” Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said about the Thursday incident.

No one was killed inside the school — the Beit Lahiya School for Girls, he said. Eight people were slightly injured.

Calls for civilian protection

The violence between Israel’s military and Palestinian militants is playing out against a backdrop of failed humanitarian cease-fire attempts, with militants firing rockets from Gaza into Israel and Israelis responding with airstrikes.

A large part of the criticism has been leveled at Israel and its airstrikes, which have bombarded Gaza.

Chile, Peru, Brazil and Ecuador have pulled their ambassadors out of Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli offensive.

Israel, in turn, has accused Hamas of hiding weapons, including rockets, in schools and launching attacks from near shelters.

‘This is a disaster’

The incessant attacks and counterattacks are taking a terrible toll on Gazans.

More than 219,000 Palestinians are packed into 86 shelters across Gaza, the U.N. said. That equals about 12% of all of Gaza’s population.

Clean water is inaccessible for most. And some 3,600 people have lost their homes.

“We cannot supply electricity” for hospitals, sewage treatment or domestic use, said Fathi al-Sheikh Khalil, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Energy Natural Resources Authority in Gaza. “This is a disaster.”

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it sent 43 trucks carrying 750 tons of food, medicine and supplies to Gaza on Wednesday. It also said it has sent fuel.

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