Israel Says Offensive to Continue as Kerry Seeks Truce

Israel’s defense minister said his country would widen the objectives of its ground war in the Gaza Strip, even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sat with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in pursuit of an elusive truce.

When Israel expanded a nine-day air campaign against Gaza militants to send ground troops into the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory last week, it said its aim was to destroy a network of infiltration tunnels militants dug under the Gaza-Israel border. Today, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said troops weren’t going to stop there.

“We are preparing for the next stages of battle once the tunnels have been taken care of,” Ya’alon said in a visit with troops on the border. “We must get ready for more serious steps inside Gaza, and the units who are on notice must prepare to enter.” He didn’t elaborate. Markets weren’t affected.

As Israel spoke of an expanding ground offensive, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said war crimes may have been committed in the conflict. Navi Pillay focused mainly on Israel’s military conduct. Sixteen days of violence have claimed the lives of almost 700 people, including hundreds of Palestinian civilians. Millions of Israeli civilians have been menaced by rocket fire.

Civilian Deaths

Mounting civilian casualties have driven international efforts to halt the third major round of violence between Israel and Gaza since 2009. Complicating things is the hostility between the new government of Egypt, a traditional mediator of Gaza truce deals, and Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The 30 members of Amin al-Dosouqi’s household fled their home in the Shuja’iya neighborhood of Gaza City that has taken one of the worst beatings of the war.

“I saw bodies of women and children thrown to the roadside, with no one able to take them to the hospital,” the 65-year-old al-Dosoqui said.

“We haven’t seen such a war before,” he added. “I was a young man in 1967 when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, the war in 1967 wasn’t as violent, barbaric and ferocious as it is now. Even the wars in 2008 and 2012 weren’t as ferocious.”

Ferocious Battles

Fighting was also fierce in southern Gaza, where 30 people were killed, said Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry. Residents and security officials said tanks stationed in the area along Israel’s border bombarded houses. Ambulances were unable to collect casualties because the shelling was so intense, they said.

The Palestinian death toll has topped 665, with more than 4,300 wounded, the ministry said. Three civilians have been killed in Israel, including a Thai worker who died in an attack today. At least 32 soldiers have died in combat and one is missing.

Earlier today, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel Radio her country may be headed toward an ongoing offensive “whose objective is not to contain the threat, but to disarm terror organizations, including Hamas.”

Hamas spurned a truce proposal Egypt put forward last week after Israel accepted it, saying it didn’t guarantee lifting the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Israel and Egypt have tightly controlled Gaza’s borders since 2006, citing security concerns. The embargo has battered Gaza’s economy and confined the territory’s 1.8 million people to a 140-square-mile (363-square-kilometer) patch of land.

More Work Needed

Kerry announced no breakthroughs after meeting yesterday with Egyptian officials in Cairo. Today, he took his truce mission to Israel and the West Bank, joining United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem. “We made some steps forward but there is still work to be done,” he said at a joint news conference with Ban.

Kerry is also meeting today with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Tony Blinken, the U.S. deputy national security adviser, told NPR radio “there has to be some way forward that does not involve Hamas raining down rockets on Israeli civilians.” An end result needs to be “some form of demilitarization,” he added. He didn’t say how Gaza might be disarmed.

Israeli markets have been largely unaffected by the violence. The shekel has appreciated 0.4 percent against the dollar since July 8 while the benchmark TA-25 index rose 1.2 percent in the period.

Flights Canceled

One of the 2,200 rockets the army says have fallen on Israel in the past two weeks fell about a mile (2 kilometers) from Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv yesterday. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration banned flights to Tel Aviv by American carriers for the first time since 1991 and the European Aviation Safety Agency recommended a suspension.

Israel opened a small southern airport to international flights as an alternative today. “There was no reason to stop the flights,” Transportation Minister Israel Katz said in comments broadcast on Israel Radio.

Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and majority shareholder of Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg News, arrived in Tel Aviv today after flying there on Israel’s El Al airline to demonstrate it is safe to fly to there.

Militants still have as many as 4,500 rockets in their arsenal, after they fired more than 2,000 and the Israeli army destroyed 3,500, army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said today. Israel, the U.S. and the European Union list Hamas as a terrorist organization.

‘Intolerably Biased’

Pillay’s allegations of possible Israeli war crimes drew a furious reaction in Israel, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor accusing her of making “intolerably biased statements” based on newspaper reports.

“Her embarrassingly shallow and populist affirmations” do a “huge disservice to actual human rights,” Palmor said in an e-mailed statement.

Israel says Hamas uses civilians, including children, as human shields by placing rocket launchers and weapons caches in or near homes, mosques, hospitals and schools. The U.S. and European Union consider the group a terrorist organization.

While Pillay, in her testimony to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, criticized Gaza rocket fire for endangering the lives of Israeli civilians, most of her testimony dwelt on the Israeli military’s operations.

Insufficient Warnings?

Preliminary UN figures indicate about three-fourths of the Gazans killed were civilians, including about 150 children, she said, criticizing Israeli warnings to evacuate homes as insufficient. Citing accounts of deadly Israeli attacks on houses, a center for the disabled and a hospital, she said “these are just a few examples where there seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes.”

After Israel’s last offensive, the UN conducted a war crimes investigation and accused Hamas and Israel of potential war crimes. The panel’s head, Richard Goldstone, later said new information on the events may have produced different conclusions.

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