Israel thinned its Gaza Strip forces a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled his four-week-old offensive in the Palestinian territory may be winding down.
Air strikes were extended as the troops redeployed and 10 Palestinians died in a blast near a United Nations shelter. The operation in Hamas-controlled Gaza isn’t over yet, Netanyahu said last night. The military “is continuing to operate with full strength in order to complete the goals of the operation,” he said in televised remarks late yesterday.
For the first time since the operation began July 8, the Israeli leader hinted at a retrenchment, saying troops would be realigned “to minimize frictions.” Looking beyond the fighting, Netanyahu urged the international community to link the reconstruction of Gaza, which has withstood thousands of Israeli air, ground and naval strikes, to the territory’s demilitarization.
The offensive, which Israel says was meant to curb rocket fire and destroy cross-border tunnels, has been the deadliest in Gaza since Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from the territory in 2005. The Gaza Health Ministry says more than 1,700 Palestinians have died, including 400 children. Israel has lost three civilians and 64 soldiers, including a serviceman Netanyahu said was captured Aug. 1.
Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Qedra said 10 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli air strike on a UN school sheltering Gazans displaced by the fighting. The military said it was looking into the report about the attack in the southern city of Rafah, the third deadly assault on a UN Relief and Works Agency facility during the conflict.
“This is of course another incident that generates both shock and disbelief at the fact that it can happen again,” Pierre Krahenbuhl, commissioner-general of the UN agency, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. The school was providing refuge to about 3,000 Palestinians, and in all the UN is sheltering about 250,000 displaced people in about 90 school buildings in Gaza, he said.
Krahenbuhl said the UN has discovered weapons caches in its schools three times and disclosed them “in a very proactive and transparent way.” He said the UN condemns any efforts by militants to store weapons in its facilities, while urging Israel to refrain from any more attacks against UN shelters.
Israel, like the U.S. and European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group, and says Hamas and other Gaza militant groups encourage civilian casualties by locating weapons, rocket launchers and other facilities in civilian areas.
“It is simply intolerable that another school has come under fire while designated to provide shelter for civilians fleeing the hostilities,” the UN’s Mideast envoy, Robert Serry, said in an e-mailed statement. He called for a truce and negotiations to address underlying issues. Those include the proliferation of arms in Gaza and Hamas’s demand to end a blockade of the territory that Israel, citing security concerns, initiated in 2006 and Egypt joined.
The more than 4,000 Israeli military assaults have rendered at least 10,000 Gaza homes uninhabitable, according to Palestinian rights group Al-Mizan. Schools, medical centers, mosques, parks, a power station and water and sewage facilities have also been hit.
After a cease-fire, Israel may be more supportive of an international investment plan for Gaza in the context of extending the control of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority there, according to a report on a workshop led by conflict resolution consultants International Crisis Group and The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
Israel’s linkage of Gaza’s economic development to disarming the territory isn’t likely to yield results because Hamas is unlikely to accept it, according to the report released July 31. “Alternative suggestions include steps that will curb Hamas’s freedom of military action,” it said. Those include “establishing a mechanism that will make Hamas place its rockets in international custody,” it said.
Since the violence escalated on July 8, militants have fired more than 3,000 rockets at Israeli towns and cities and the Israeli air force has hit more than 4,600 targets in the seaside strip, according to the army. Israel says it has uncovered more than 30 tunnels militants built to infiltrate Israeli territory.
A military spokesman, speaking anonymously today in line with regulations, had no further details on the scope of the troop redeployment. Another military official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the destruction of tunnels -- Israel’s stated reason for embarking on a ground war -- was expected to be completed within the next 24 hours.
The military struck 25 targets by midday and more than a dozen rockets from Gaza were fired at Israel, the army said, a decline from earlier days.
In Cairo yesterday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi said his country’s July 14 truce initiative, which Israel accepted and Hamas rejected, is still on the table.
Hamas sent a delegation to talks in Cairo, according to Egypt’s state-run Ahram Gate website. Israel won’t because it doesn’t believe the group can be trusted to honor a cease-fire, Israel’s deputy defense minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, said in an interview with Channel 2 television.
Abbas, in a statement posted by the official Wafa news agency, appealed to the international community to force Israel to “stop its aggression and to respond to the Egyptian initiative.”