The head of Hamas said Israel must end its blockade of the Gaza Strip if a cease-fire is to be agreed upon, as Israeli ground forces honed preparations to enter the territory for the first time in almost four years.
As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Egypt today to help broker an end to the fighting, the political head of Hamas told reporters in Cairo that it hadn’t asked for a truce. The Palestinian Islamist group is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
“Israel is the one that started the war and should stop it,” Khaled Mashaal said, adding that Hamas won’t accept any Israeli conditions. “Certain demands must be met,” he said, including an end to the blockade of Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting of senior ministers today to discuss a potential truce, the Ynet news website said.
Israeli officials said any cease-fire must include a long-term agreement with Hamas to halt the rocket fire. “Without that, there’s no point,” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said in an interview with Army Radio.
The escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, threatens a region still unbalanced after a wave of popular uprisings last year. Israel has massed tanks on its border east of Gaza and began to call up 75,000 reservists for a possible ground operation.
“For a cease-fire to happen both sides need to be equally unhappy,” said Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London research institute. “Israel is probably content to continue air operations for another couple of days, as they still have targets on their list.”
Israeli strikes killed 28 Palestinians in Gaza today, raising the death toll since Nov. 14 to 102, said Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. Three Israeli citizens have been killed.
At least 1,100 missiles, rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel since Nov. 14, the day that the head of the Hamas militia was killed in an Israeli air attack, according to the Israel Defense Forces. About 15,000 have been launched from Gaza in the past 11 years.
“We will continue to act, to attack and perhaps even to intensify the operation,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday. “If there is a need, we won’t hesitate to undertake ground maneuvers.”
Israeli stocks rose for a second day on bets international mediation will lead to a cease-fire. The TA-25 index advanced 0.7 percent to 1,206.13 in Tel Aviv. Oil extended gains on concern that conflict in the Middle East may disrupt supplies. Egypt’s benchmark stock index dropped 1.2 percent to 5,413.78 in Cairo.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a conference in Istanbul today that Israel was a “terrorist state” because of its offensive in Gaza. Such remarks reflect the increased sympathy toward Hamas shown by the region’s new Islamist leaders, a development that leaves Israel more isolated.
Hamas is “mildly optimistic” about efforts to broker a cease-fire with Israel, Nabil Shaath, a senior adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said today in an interview. “But it’s difficult to predict when that will come to fruition,” he said, speaking in the north Sinai town of el-Arish.
Israel says its military goal is to make Palestinians in Gaza stop firing rockets that threaten 4.5 million people, or half the country’s population, Israeli ambassador to the U.K. Daniel Taub told Bloomberg Television today.
President Barack Obama, who is traveling in Asia, spoke to Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi today from Cambodia. The White House said the president “underscored the necessity of Hamas ending rocket fire into Israel” in his conversation with the Egyptian leader. He then called Netanyahu for an update on the situation in Gaza and Israel, the White House said in a statement.
Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system, which targets projectiles heading toward populated areas, has intercepted 302 of those fired from Gaza at populated areas, according to the Israeli army. Israeli fighter jets hit about 150 targets in Gaza yesterday, bringing the number of airstrikes over the past four days to 1,350, an army spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in compliance with military rules.
World leaders including Obama have called for an end to the conflict before it escalates. 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.
In phone conversations during the past several days with Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, and foreign ministers of France and Turkey, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “underscored Israel’s right to self-defense” and “the urgent need for all leaders with influence to use it to seek an immediate de-escalation of tensions,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters today in Washington.
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.
Abbas, whose Fatah group rules in the West Bank, has said he’ll seek to upgrade Palestinian diplomatic status at the UN later this month to “non-member observer state” in the 193-member General Assembly. Abbas failed last year to secure approval in the 15-member Security Council for statehood recognition after opposition from the U.S.
Israeli leaders say the Palestinian bid is a unilateral step to obtain statehood without negotiating and will be used to try to isolate Israel diplomatically.