Gaza Conflict Escalates as Netanyahu Warns Long CampaignSaud Abu Ramadan, Jonathan Ferziger and Calev Ben-David
Israel intensified its attacks against Gaza after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his country to brace for an extended military campaign and said any truce must be based on disarming the Hamas Islamist movement that runs the territory.
“The process of preventing the arming of terror organizations must be part of any solution, and the international community must demand this aggressively,” Netanyahu said in a televised address late yesterday. “We must be ready for a long operation.”
Israeli stepped up its shelling of Gaza overnight as the buzz of drones filled the air and the ground in Gaza City shook from explosions every few minutes. A media complex housing the offices of Hamas-run Al Aqsa television and radio suffered two major explosions, and an Israeli plane fired a missile at the home of Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh, without causing casualties, Associated Press reported.
The third major military showdown between the sides in less than six years has claimed the lives of more than 1,050 Palestinians and 50 Israelis during three weeks of fighting. Previous truce deals failed to prevent the proliferation of arms in the Gaza Strip or meet Hamas’s demand that Israel end its blockade of the territory, which was initiated in 2006.
The Israeli military has killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians, fueling international pressure on Netanyahu to end Israel’s incursions into Gaza. Among those killed yesterday were 10 Palestinians, some of them children, who died in disputed circumstances at a Gaza hospital and a park.
Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Qedra said the Palestinians died in Israeli air strikes on outpatients’ clinics at Shifa hospital in Gaza City and a park in the Shahti refugee camp. Most were children, he said. The Israeli army said fatalities at both sites were caused by militant rockets that fell short.
Four Israeli soldiers were killed by mortar fire along the border, the military said in a statement. A fifth soldier was killed during operations in southern Gaza.
Israel says its campaign is intended to quell rocket fire and destroy tunnels that militants have dug into Israeli territory. Gaza fighters have launched more than 2,500 rockets during the conflict and Israeli forces say they have discovered around 30 underground passages, including one used to slip into Israel yesterday. Israeli troops killed one infiltrator in a gun-battle, the army said.
“The operation against the tunnels is the first and an imperative step in demilitarizing Gaza,” Netanyahu said.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who spoke after Netanyahu, said the military was continuing to attack targets in Gaza. Earlier, it dropped leaflets from the air and sent phone messages to Palestinians living in one Gaza City area to evacuate their homes.
President Barack Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 27 to urge “an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.” Added pressure came yesterday from the United Nations. The Security Council also called for an “immediate and unconditional truce” and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters he telephoned Netanyahu to press for a cease-fire.
The prime minister said the council statement doesn’t provide for Israel’s security and favors Hamas by not calling for the demilitarization of Gaza, according to a text message from his office. Israel, the U.S. and the European Union label Hamas a terrorist group.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, in a PBS interview with Charlie Rose, said the war shows the need to “lift the siege of eight years,” referring to the economic embargo. He also said that to stop the bloodshed “we need to look at the underlying causes. We need to look at the occupation” of Palestinian land by Israel, according to e-mailed excerpts.
Both Hamas and Israel rejected a cease-fire plan proposed over the weekend by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. In Washington yesterday, Kerry said the U.S. continues to work toward a short truce, in the hope that it would pave the way for a more lasting peace. “Any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups,” he said.
End of Ramadan
The calls for a break in hostilities came as Gaza’s 1.8 million people began observing Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday marking the end of the Muslim fast month of Ramadan.
In more peaceful times, streets would be bustling and the atmosphere would be festive, with adults and children dressed in holiday finery and visiting relatives. Parks and beaches would be packed.
Yesterday, streets were almost empty in Gaza City, the territory’s biggest urban area, as people visited fresh graves, bouquets of flowers in hand, paid hospital calls on family and friends wounded in the fighting, and surveyed the damage done by the Israeli strikes. The Eid is usually the best season for business in Gaza, yet this year, many shops were closed.
“This isn’t Eid, it’s the worst Eid I’ve seen in all my life,” said Mohamed al-Ejla, a 45-year-old father of seven. “I still remember the Eid when I was young, it was full of happiness and we enjoyed it. But this Eid is full of blood, destruction, pain, grief and sadness.”
While the military operation has barely affected Israel’s markets, the Bank of Israel cited the conflict in its surprise rate cut yesterday, though it said it was too early to tell the economic effects of the security situation.