Israel said it may expand an assault on the Gaza Strip amid a fifth day of rocket attacks on its cities as regional leaders raced to broker an accord ending a conflict that has killed 52 Palestinians and three Israelis.
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi said late yesterday that there are indications an agreement to halt the fighting may be reached. The violence threatens a region still unbalanced after a wave of popular uprisings last year, including one in Israel’s neighbor Syria that has become a civil war.
Mursi’s cease-fire comments were undermined by air-raid sirens and loud booms over Tel Aviv today as two rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. A rocket hit Jerusalem on Nov. 16, the first such attack in decades. At least 10 rockets were fired from Gaza today, raising the number since Nov. 14 to more than 750.
“We have extracted a heavy price from Hamas and other terrorist organizations, and the army is prepared to significantly widen the operation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the weekly Cabinet meeting today in Jerusalem. He said he spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama over the weekend and will continue talks with international leaders, according to an e-mailed statement from his office.
Almost half the Palestinians killed in the Israeli airstrikes since Nov. 14 were civilians, including women and children, according to Ashraf al-Qedra of the Ministry of Health in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Israel says its military goal is to make Palestinians in Gaza stop firing the rockets that have killed three Israeli civilians.
Hamas said the Israeli actions won’t stop it from operating. “The government and the Palestinian people are united to confront the aggression,” it said in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “It is the right of Palestinian people and the government to resist the occupation.”
The Iron Dome, which targets projectiles heading toward populated areas, has intercepted 260 of those fired from Gaza, according to the Israeli army. The U.S., Israel and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group.
French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius will visit Israel today to meet with Netanyahu and also will talk with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank, and request that “all the parties” end the escalation of violence, the Foreign Ministry in Paris said.
“We are not yet at the point to be talking about a cease-fire,” Uzi Landau, Israeli minister of energy and water, said on Army Radio.
Israelis “are going to make their own decisions,” Ben Rhodes, deputy U.S. national security adviser, told reporters traveling to Asia with Obama on Air Force One yesterday. The U.S. wants “the same thing the Israelis want, which is an end to the rocket fire coming out of Gaza.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking before he departed for Egypt to meet with Mursi yesterday, said Hamas is ready to halt missile attacks if it is given guarantees by the U.S. that Israel also will stop firing.
Israeli stocks and bonds rose for the first time in three days on optimism about a cease-fire. The benchmark TA-25 index advanced 0.7 percent to 1,189.39, the most in intraday trade since Nov. 6, at 10:29 a.m. in Tel Aviv. The gauge dropped 2.5 percent last week, the biggest decline since the week ending June 14. The yield on the 5.5 percent Mimshal Shiklit bond maturing January 2022 dropped three basis points, or 0.03 percentage points, to 3.98 percent.
World leaders including Obama have called for an end to the conflict before it escalates further. Israel deployed tanks near the border, threatening the first ground invasion of Gaza since an assault that began in December 2008 and left more than 1,100 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead.
Egypt is trying with Turkey, Arab nations and the world’s leading powers, such as the U.S., France and Britain, to get a cease-fire agreement from both sides, Mursi said yesterday.
Israeli fighter jets hit 50 targets in Gaza overnight, bringing the number of air strikes over the past four days to 950, an army spokesman said, speaking anonymously in compliance with military rules.
Among the targets were buildings housing several media offices, one of which the army said in an e-mailed statement contained a Hamas communications antenna. That prompted the Foreign Press Association to issue a statement of concern. Among the news organizations housed in one of the buildings are Germany’s ARD TV and the U.K.’s Sky News, the association said in an e-mailed statement. Russia Today television said in a statement that its office in the same building was destroyed.
The standoff in Gaza is putting pressure on Arab leaders such as Mursi, who came to power after an uprising that ousted U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak last year and has pledged stronger support for Palestinians. Tens of thousands have rallied in Cairo to protest the Israeli attacks, and there were similar demonstrations in Turkey, Iran and other Islamic countries.
Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr Al Thani yesterday took his regional counterparts to task for failing to do more for the Palestinian cause, while ruling out any sort of military intervention in the Gaza Strip conflict.
“Our meetings have become a waste of time and public finances,” Sheikh Hamad said at an Arab League meeting yesterday in Cairo. “We Arabs have helped in the besieging of our Palestinian brothers.”
Erdogan told Egyptian students in Cairo yesterday that Turkey and Egypt “represent the joint conscience of the region” and can work together to help resolve conflicts. He said earlier that Obama asked him to use his influence with Hamas to help end the fighting, and that he urged Obama in return to apply pressure on Israel.
The Arab League urged its member nations to end normalization of relations with Israel because of the Israeli air offensive in Gaza, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Arabi said in a statement after the meeting in Cairo.
The league has endorsed the so-called Arab Peace Initiative, which was originally proposed in 2002. It offers to normalize relations between Israel and all Arab states in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War, including the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab League members that have full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Hamas may want to prolong the conflict for a while “to keep earning more popular support among the Arab peoples and Arab leaders,” said As’ad Abu Sharkh, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.
The group probably isn’t interested in a “fragile” cease-fire that could be violated by Israel or smaller Palestinian groups, Abu Sharkh said. Instead, it seeks “a long-term truce with guarantees that Israel won’t violate it again,” so that Palestinians can rebuild Gaza, he said.
Israeli ministers agreed to raise the military reservists’ call-up quota to 75,000 from 30,000 at a meeting late Nov. 16 in Tel Aviv, said Mark Regev, the spokesman for Netanyahu.
Israeli forces fired artillery shells early today in the Golan Heights after gunfire from Syria hit an army vehicle, according to the Israeli army spokesman. The firing on the Israeli vehicle didn’t cause any injuries.