Gaza Truce Crumbling Leads Obama to Seek Full Combat HaltSaud Abu Ramadan and Jonathan Ferziger
Israel renewed its offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip after Palestinian rockets tore through a fledgling truce, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to call for an immediate end to the fighting.
Shortly after the Israeli military campaign resumed yesterday, Hamas offered to go back to a previous United Nations-backed cease-fire agreement that took effect July 25. As Palestinian missiles continued to fly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hamas of violating the agreement and gave no indication his country would suspend military operations.
Obama called the Israeli leader afterward to “make clear the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire that ends hostilities now and leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities” based on a November 2012 truce, the White House said in a statement.
The conflict, nearing the end of its third week, is the third major military showdown between the sides in less than six years. It has already claimed the lives of more than 1,050 Palestinians, 45 Israelis and a Thai worker in Israel.
A poll commissioned by Israel’s Channel 10 television showed 87 percent support for the military offensive, with 69 percent saying it should continue until Hamas is toppled. Only 7 percent favored a cease-fire. The television report didn’t include the size of the polling sample or margin of error.
Previous truce deals have failed to resolve underlying issues including the proliferation of arms in Gaza and Hamas’s demand to end Israel’s economic blockade of the Palestinian territory, initiated in 2006 and joined by Egypt.
Both sides rejected a U.S. truce proposal put forth last week by Secretary of State John Kerry, who sought a week-long break in hostilities to give time to reach a sustainable deal. In the absence of a political agreement, the UN won a halt in fighting over the weekend to allow Palestinians to stock up on supplies, bury their dead, and repair water and energy infrastructure.
The truce has been an on-again, off-again affair since July 26, when Israel agreed to extend it and Hamas didn’t. It broke down after Hamas fired about two dozen rockets and mortars, and the military announced that aerial, naval and ground operations would resume. Targets struck by Israeli aircraft shortly after included a building housing Hamas’s Al-Aqsa television station, witnesses said.
“Hamas doesn’t even accept its own cease-fire,” Netanyahu said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program yesterday. “It’s continuing to fire at us as we speak.”
Shortly after Israel restarted its battlefield campaign, Hamas dropped earlier conditions for extending the cease-fire, including an Israeli troop pullout. It wasn’t clear why Hamas changed its mind.
“Responding to the UN intervention and considering our people’s situation, it was agreed with the Palestinian factions to go for a 24-hour cease-fire,” Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group, said in a text message yesterday.
Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, begins today.
The Israeli army said yesterday it wasn’t to blame for the deaths of 16 Palestinians at a UN-run school July 24 in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, citing the results of its investigation.
Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said in a phone briefing for reporters that only one errant Israeli mortar shell hit the school’s yard at a point where there were no people, citing video footage. He suggested the victims may have been killed in crossfire between Israel and Palestinian militants and moved into the yard.
Some Gaza residents urged Hamas to keep fighting to end the blockade, which sharply restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of the impoverished territory of 1.8 million. “In the Gaza Strip, 2 million people have been slowly dying every day for eight years,” said 26-year-old Khaled Sallah from Gaza City in an interview. “Either our lives change and we live in dignity or the fighting continues.”
Others, such as Hind Sha’aban, a 28-year-old mother of three, want to let politicians and diplomats “change our reality in Gaza.”
“The fighting must stop to save the lives of the poor,” Sha’aban said. “Every minute I feel like my children and I are going to get killed. I don’t know what will happen. Are they expecting to stop fighting after 5,000 people or more are killed?”
Israel says its campaign is intended to quell the rocket fire and destroy a network of tunnels that militants dug into Israeli territory to carry out attacks. Israel, the U.S. and the European Union label Hamas a terrorist group.
Netanyahu said Israel must disarm Gaza to bring about a sustainable peace.
“We have to demilitarize it from the weapons that Hamas has put in there -- missiles, rockets, terror tunnels,” he said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “We can’t allow them to restock this arsenal or we’ll be stuck in another five, six months with the same problem.”
Hamas’s exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, said it is “high time to lift the siege on Gaza,” a reference to the blockade.
“We are not fanatics,” he said in an interview taped yesterday that aired yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We fight the occupiers.”
Asked if he would recognize Israel if the occupation and blockade were to end, he replied, “When we have a Palestinian state, then the Palestinian state will decide on its policies.”
The military operation has barely affected Israel’s financial markets. The benchmark government bond rose for a fifth consecutive day, increasing the record high. The yield on the note due March 2024 declined 4 basis points to close at 2.72 percent. The TA-25 shares index declined 0.2 percent at the Tel Aviv close after Gazit Globe fell 2.2 percent on losses from U.S.-traded shares.
Some in the Israeli cabinet, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, have spoken about reoccupying Gaza, nine years after Israel pulled out thousands of soldiers and settlers. Others, including Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, say Israel should continue its military campaign until the territory is demilitarized.
The violence flared after peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority collapsed in April and three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank last month, triggering an Israeli roundup of hundreds of militants from Hamas and other Palestinian groups.
The murder of a Palestinian teenager in east Jerusalem earlier this month in suspected retribution set off a wave of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and Israeli police that has led to the arrest of about 1,000 rioters.
In what appears to be the most serious spillover yet, a West Bank Palestinian driver wearing a wig was stopped at an Israeli military checkpoint yesterday before he could drive his vehicle into Israel with a “powerful” explosive device and gas canisters, police said in a text message.