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In 12-hour Gaza lull, residents return to destroyed areas

PARIS/BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip -- Thousands of Gaza residents who had fled Israel-Hamas fighting streamed back to devastated border areas during a lull Saturday to find large-scale destruction: scores of homes were pulverized, wreckage blocked roads and power cables dangled in the streets.

The 12-hour truce was the only immediate outcome from a high-level mediation mission by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon over the past week. They failed, however, to broker a weeklong cease-fire as a precursor to a broader deal.

Instead, Israel's defense minister warned he might soon expand the ground operation in Gaza “significantly.”

In the northern town of Beit Hanoun, residents encountered widespread destruction. Most had fled days earlier, following Israeli warnings that the town would be shelled.

Siham Kafarneh, 37, sat on the steps of a small grocery, weeping. The mother of eight said the home she had spent 10 years saving up for and moved into two months earlier had been destroyed.

“Nothing is left. Everything I have is gone,” she said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and top diplomats from Europe and the Middle East gathered in Paris Saturday called for an extension to the temporary ceasefire.

Both sides have agreed to a 12-hour “humanitarian” truce in Gaza that started on Saturday morning. “We all call on parties to extend the humanitarian ceasefire currently in force, by 24 hours that could be renewed,” France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters after the meeting, which lasted more than two hours.

“We all want to obtain a lasting ceasefire as quickly as possible that addresses both Israeli requirements in terms of security and Palestinian requirements in terms of socio-economic development.”

More than 1,000 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed and more than 6,000 wounded over the past 19 days, according to Palestinian officials. Israeli strikes have destroyed hundreds of homes, including close to 500 in targeted hits, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee, according to Palestinian rights groups. More than 160,000 displaced Palestinians have sought shelter at dozens of U.N. schools, the U.N. said.

Israel says it is doing its utmost to prevent civilian casualties, including sending evacuation warnings to residents in targeted areas, and blames Hamas for putting civilians in harm's way. Israel has lost 37 soldiers and two civilians, and a Thai worker has also been killed.

“There is no proof that any kind of gratuitous damage is being inflicted,” said Israeli legislator Ofer Shelah of the centrist Yesh Atid party. Israeli troops are “fighting with an enemy dug in within the civilian population, dug in underground or within the houses there,” he said, adding that “those are the consequences of such a fight.”

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Palestinian mourners carry the body of Taib Mohammed Odeh, 22, during his funeral in Hawara near Nablus, the northern West Bank, Saturday. (AP)

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