Israeli ground forces are poised to invade the Gaza Strip for the first time in almost four years amid efforts by Egypt and Turkey to help end exchanges of fire that have killed 96 Palestinians and three Israelis.
The decision whether to expand the Gaza operation or reach a cease-fire agreement “is rapidly approaching, and is a matter of hours, not even days,” Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said in an interview today on Army Radio.
Air-raid sirens sounded twice in Tel Aviv yesterday as four rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. A rocket was fired at Jerusalem on Nov. 16, the first such attack in decades. At least 1,100 missiles, rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel since Nov. 14, according to the Israel Defense Forces. About 15,000 have been launched from Gaza in the past 11 years.
The escalating conflict between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, threatens a region still unbalanced after a wave of popular uprisings last year. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
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. “They think negotiations are going seriously, but it’s difficult to predict when that will come to fruition,” he said, speaking in the north Sinai town of el-Arish.
There has been a drop in the number of rockets fired, with only about 20 so far today, said Avital Leibovich, an Israeli army spokeswoman. “Rocket launching ability has been severely damaged,” she said.
The Israeli strikes killed 19 Palestinians in Gaza yesterday, including 11 members of an extended family by the name of Al-Dalou, said Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. At least half of the Palestinians killed since the airstrikes started last week were civilians, including women and children, he said. Three Israeli citizens were killed by Gaza rockets on Nov. 15.
“We will continue to act, to attack and perhaps even to intensify the operation,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday, according to an e-mailed statement. “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 0.2 percent at midday in Tel Aviv. Oil extended gains on concern that conflict in the Middle East may disrupt supplies, adding 1.3 percent to $87.78 a barrel at 10 a.m. in London. Egypt’s benchmark stock index rose 0.2 percent, paring a slump of 3.3 percent yesterday that was the biggest in more than four months.
An Israeli official arrived at Cairo airport yesterday, an Egyptian security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment to the media. The arrival came as Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushed to secure a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
“Israel is also aware of problems and possible threats that might come from Jordan, which has a large Palestinian population, and Syria regarding the Golan Heights,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a terrorism analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. “Israel might be trying to address the existing problem first before dealing with wider regional problems.”
Hamas is demanding that Israel lift its blockade of Gaza and end targeted killings of its leaders in return for a cease-fire, Israel’s Army Radio reported, citing reports from Cairo.
“I strongly urge the parties to cooperate with all efforts led by Egypt to reach an immediate cease-fire,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement released yesterday in New York. “I am heading to the region to appeal personally for ending the violence and contribute to ongoing efforts to that end.”
Israel says its military goal is to make Palestinians in Gaza stop firing the rockets that threaten 4.5 million people, or half the population of the country, Israeli ambassador to the U.K. Daniel Taub told Bloomberg Television today.
“Let’s understand what the precipitating event was that was causing the crisis, and that was an ever-escalating number of missiles,” U.S. President Barack Obama said at a press conference in Bangkok, where he began a three-nation trip. “We will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”
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. “It is the right of Palestinian people and the government to resist the occupation.”
Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system, which targets projectiles heading toward populated areas, has intercepted 302 of those fired from Gaza toward 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.
Israeli officials said hackers have sought to bring down government websites. Israeli websites have been hit by 44 million cyber-attacks since the Gaza operation started Nov. 14, all but one of which were stopped, Steinitz told reporters in Jerusalem.
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 with Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil and her counterparts in France, Qatar 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 said.
Loss of Support
Israel risks losing “a lot of international support and sympathy” if it mounts a ground invasion to stop the rocket attacks, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News television.
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.
‘No More Missiles’
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.
“If we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, then the likelihood of us getting onto any two-state solution is pushed further in the future,” Obama said. “It starts with no more missiles fired into Israel’s territory.”
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 group’s 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, 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.