As a truce in Gaza was set to enter a third day, U.S. President Barack Obama called on negotiators in Cairo to extend the cease-fire and seek agreement on rebuilding the Palestinian enclave.
Palestinian, Egyptian and U.S. diplomats are in the Egyptian capital for the talks. Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, told Bloomberg Television that Israeli officials are also there and “negotiating through the Egyptians,” though Israel’s government hasn’t confirmed their presence.
Obama, at a news conference in Washington after his Africa summit, said the priorities beyond extending the cease-fire are to address the immediate consequences of the conflict and the underlying concerns of both Palestinians and Israelis.
“The U.S. goal right now would be to make sure that the cease-fire holds, that Gaza can begin the process of rebuilding, and that some measures are taken so that the people of Gaza feel some sense of hope and the people of Israel feel confident that they aren’t going to have a repeat of the kind of rocket launches that we’ve seen,” he said.
The initial truce was due to last for three days, expiring early tomorrow, and no agreement to extend it has been announced, though Mansour said he was hopeful that one would be reached. Israel withdrew troops from the territory on Aug. 5 after four weeks of fighting. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem late yesterday that the army is stationed outside Gaza, ready to deal with any cease-fire violation.
The Gaza offensive, which Israel said was intended to end rocket attacks and destroy cross-border tunnels militants constructed to stage raids, has been the deadliest in the territory since Israeli settlers and soldiers left in 2005. At least 1,868 Palestinians lost their lives, the majority of them civilians, according to Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra. Israel says 750 to 1,000 militants were killed and that 67 people died on the Israeli side, 64 of them soldiers.
About a quarter of Gaza’s 1.8 million people had been displaced by the fighting, in some cases taking refuge in UN schools. They’ve begun returning to find homes damaged or destroyed by Israeli missiles and shells.
Foreign ministers from Arab countries including Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait will visit Gaza in the coming days as part of an Arab League delegation that will assess what is needed to begin reconstruction of the coastal strip, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby said, according to the United Arab Emirates news agency WAM.
The Israeli military has urged citizens who left their homes near the border to return. “Just like it was quiet here before, it will be quiet again afterward,” army chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz said at a press conference near the frontier.
Gantz also said that Israel doesn’t rule out future strikes on leaders of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza. “Anywhere that we are able to attack them, we will strike at the time of our choosing,” he said.
Israel and Hamas are pressing for a cease-fire that addresses issues earlier accords didn’t resolve. Hamas wants to lift an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, while Israel wants to eliminate the threat of future attacks from the territory by demilitarizing it.
An accord may hinge on expanding the influence of the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, in Gaza at the expense of Hamas, Martin Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. Mideast envoy, said at a panel discussion in Washington on Aug. 5. That could start with control over border crossings, he said.
Abbas’s Fatah faction runs the West Bank and split with Hamas seven years ago, though the groups have sought to reconcile since the breakdown of U.S.-brokered peace talks in April. Azzam al-Ahmad from Fatah is the head of the Palestinian delegation in Cairo, which also includes Hamas officials. Israel, like the U.S. and European Union, considers Hamas a terrorist organization.
Netanyahu said at yesterday’s news conference that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been coordinating efforts on the cease-fire and intend to work together on rebuilding Gaza, providing humanitarian aid and security issues.
“We are cooperating with them and are prepared to see a role for them,” Netanyahu said.
Fending off condemnation from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders about Israel’s use of military power in Gaza, Netanyahu said Israel used appropriate force in the face of thousands of rockets being fired at its citizens from Gaza and the threat of tunnel attacks.
“Yes, I think it was justified,” Netanyahu said. “I think it was proportional and that doesn’t in any way take away from the deep regret for, we have for the loss of a single civilian.”
Obama, asked whether he considers Israel’s military action justified and proportional, reiterated his support for Israel’s right to self-defense and said Hamas acted “extraordinarily irresponsibly” by “deliberately siting rocket launchers in population centers.”
Even so, he said, “I’ve also expressed my distress at what’s happened to innocent civilians, including women and children.” Obama said he has “great sympathy for ordinary people who are struggling” in Gaza.
Finding a Formula
“The question then becomes, can we find a formula in which Israel has greater assurance that Gaza will not be a launching pad for further attacks” while also ensuring that “ordinary Palestinian have some prospects for an opening of Gaza so that they do not feel walled off and incapable of pursuing basic prosperity?”
“There are formulas that are available, but they’re going to require risks on the part of political leaders,” he said. “They’re going to require a slow rebuilding of trust, which is obviously very difficult in the aftermath of the kind of violence that we’ve seen.”