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Palestinians crowd a wondiw to receive food aid at a United Nations distribution center in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on Aug. 6. / AP

As a 72-hour cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hamas appeared to be holding, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday defended his country's conduct of the fighting as "justified" and "proportional," blaming Hamas for increasing the death toll by rejecting an earlier cease-fire.

"It is very important to understand what kind of conditions our forces are facing," he said, showing footage of what he said was Hamas firing mortars and operating from tunnels dug in civilian areas, near schools and mosques.

He charged Hamas is engaging in "child sacrifice" by using human shields.

"This is something for which it must be held accountable -- for the sake of all our children, Hamas must not be allowed to get away with this."

His remarks came as indirect talks on a broader deal began in Cairo, with Egyptian mediators shuttling between delegations from both sides in the coming days to try to work out a deal.

While he said he was mindful of the casualties from the war, which has left nearly 2,000 dead on both sides, Netanyahu said Israel's military actions were "justified" and "proportional."

"We have gone to extra lengths to avoid civilian casualties," he said.

The prime minister told reporters that 90% of the deaths in the fighting in Gaza occurred after Hamas rejected the first cease-fire proposal. He called it a "tragedy of Hamas's own making."

"Let's imagine your country attacked by 3,500 rockets," he told reporters at a news conference. "Your territories infiltrated by death squads. What would you do? What would you demand your government do to protect you and your family?" What if the rockets are fired from civilian areas ... should you then not take action?"

Israel has said it wants the Islamic militant Hamas to disarm, or at least ensure it cannot re-arm, before considering the group's demand that the territory's borders be opened. Israel and Egypt imposed a closure after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.

"The most important thing to us is removing the blockade and start reconstructing Gaza," said Bassam Salhi, a Palestinian delegate. "There can be no deal without that."

The Palestinian delegation is composed of negotiators from all major factions, including Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. Names of those in the Israeli team have not been disclosed.

The 72-hour truce - for humanitarian purposes - comes as nearly 1,900 Palestinians have been killed since the conflict began July 8, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians, according to the Israeli military.


In Gaza, residents returned to their devastated homes to inspect the damage Wednesday.

"I think my workshop was here, but honestly I can't make sure of that," said carpenter Mahmoud Al Maghani, 44, in the Shijaiyah neighborhood east of Gaza City. "I came yesterday and all I found was rubble."

In the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, Mohammed Musleh, 27, surveyed his now uninhabitable third-floor apartment and said he hoped that this time a real solution could be found to end the isolation Gazans have endured since Israel imposed a blockade in 2007, followed by one by Egypt late last summer.


"The war was necessary to force the blockade to be lifted," he said. "I hope that this time there will be a really permanent solution for it."

In Sderot, an Israeli town near the Gaza border, few residents trusted the cease-fire enough to venture far from their homes. Those who did rushed to fill prescriptions, stock up on groceries or check on relatives, said Noam Bedein, who runs an advocacy center for local residents.

"It's very, very tense here on the ground and Home Front Command has continued to advise us to remain within 15 seconds of shelter," Bedein said. "While we always try to be optimistic about cease-fires, the fact is that Hamas has broken every single one we've had in the past seven years."


In Jerusalem, Amir Saban, a 30-year-old hair cutter, also rejected the notion that Hamas will honor a long-term cease-fire.

"We just saw how cruel they are to their own people in Gaza, where they fired rockets from the heart of the city," he said. "Why should we believe they have better intentions for Israel?"

The war broke out on July 8, when the Israeli military began bombarding targets in Gaza in an attempt to stop Hamas from launching rockets at Israel. On July 17, Israel sent ground troops into the densely-populated territory to destroy underground tunnels it said Hamas had constructed for attacks inside Israel.

Contributing: John Bacon and Doug Stanglin in McLean, Va., Associated Press



Copyright 2014USA TODAY

Read the original story: Israeli PM defends conduct of Gaza war as 'justified'

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