Wednesday, July 16, 2014
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel resumed its heavy bombardment of Gaza on Tuesday and warned that Hamas "would pay the price" after the Islamic militant group rejected an Egyptian truce plan and instead unleashed more rocket barrages at the Jewish state.
Late Tuesday, the military urged tens of thousands of residents of northern and eastern Gaza to leave their homes by Wednesday morning, presumable a prelude to air strikes there.
Rocket fire killed an Israeli man Tuesday, the first Israeli fatality in eight days of fighting. In Gaza, 197 people were killed and close to 1,500 wounded so far, Palestinian officials said, making it the deadliest Israel-Hamas confrontation in just over five years.
The Egyptian proposal, initially accepted by Israel, had been the first attempt to end the fighting.
It unraveled in less than a day, a sign that it will be harder than before to reach a truce. Hamas does not consider Egypt's current rulers — who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo a year ago — to be fair brokers.
Violence is bound to escalate in coming days.
Hamas believes it has little to lose by continuing to fight, while a truce on unfavorable terms could further weaken its grip on the Gaza Strip, a territory it seized in 2007. Underscoring that position, Gaza militants fired more than 120 rockets and mortar rounds at Israel on Tuesday, during what Egypt had hoped would be a period of de-escalation.
A particularly heavy barrage came around dusk, with more than 40 rockets hitting Israel in just a few minutes, including one that fell on an empty school. TV footage showed children cowering behind a wall in Tel Aviv's main square as sirens went off. An Israeli man in his 30s was killed near the Gaza border when he was delivering food to soldiers — the first Israeli death.
Hamas' defiance prompted Israeli warnings. In an evening address aired live on TV, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that after Hamas' rejection of the truce, Israel had "no choice" but to respond more forcefully.
"Hamas chose to continue fighting and will pay the price for that decision," he said. "When there is no cease-fire, our answer is fire."
After holding its fire for six hours, the Israeli air force resumed its heavy bombardment of Gaza, launching 33 strikes from midafternoon, the military said. In all, Israeli aircraft struck close to 1,700 times since July 8, while Gaza militants fired more than 1,200 rockets at Israel.
Netanyahu said Israel would have liked to see a diplomatic solution, but would keep attacking until rocket fire stops and Hamas' military capabilities are diminished. The Israeli leader said he would "widen and increase" the campaign against Hamas, but it remains unclear if that will include a ground offensive.
Israel has warned it might send troops into Gaza and has massed thousands of soldiers on the border. However, entering Gaza would likely drive up casualties on both sides. Israel has hesitated in the past to embark on ground operations for fear of getting entangled in the densely populated territory of 1.7 million.
Late Tuesday, the Israeli military told residents of the northern town of Beit Lahiya and the Gaza City neighborhoods of Shijaiyah and Zeitoun in automated phone calls to leave their homes by early Wednesday.
Sami Wadiya, a resident of one of the areas likely to be targeted, said he would not leave his home. "We know it's risky, but there are no secure places to go to," he said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Israel has the right to defend itself, but that "no one wants to see a ground war."
"Our effort remains focused on seeing if we can return to a cease-fire," she said.
The current round has been the deadliest since a major Israeli military offensive in the winter of 2008-09. The previous outbreak of cross-border violence, in 2012, eventually ended with the help of Egypt, at the time seen as a trusted broker by Hamas.
Hamas officials Tuesday rejected the current Egyptian plan as is, noting they weren't consulted by Cairo. Some portrayed the truce offer as an ultimatum presented to Hamas by Israel and Egypt.
The officials said the Egyptian plan offered no tangible achievements, particularly on easing the border blockade that has been enforced by Israel and Egypt to varying degrees since 2007. Egypt tightened the closure in the past year by shutting down smuggling tunnels that were crucial for Gaza's economy, pushing Hamas into a severe financial crisis.
"The siege on Gaza must be broken, and the people of Gaza should live freely like other people of the world," Moussa Abu Marzouk, a top Hamas official, told the Lebanese TV channel Al-Mayadeen. "There should be a new equation so that we will not have a war on Gaza every two years."
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said the movement wants additional mediators and international guarantees of any deal.
"Mediation to end this aggression needs to come from different countries, and the guarantees should be given by different countries in order to commit the occupation (Israel) to what any future agreement might say," al-Masri said, without naming preferred brokers.
Qatar and Turkey, seen as more sympathetic to Hamas, have been involved behind the scenes, but it's not clear to what extent. The emir of Qatar visited Turkey for talks Tuesday with Turkish leaders.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas' main political rival, was to meet Wednesday in Cairo with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and then fly to Turkey for high-level talks.
Before the latest fighting, Abbas had reached a tentative unity deal with Hamas that would have given him a new foothold in Gaza. However, a significant easing of the Gaza blockade in a truce deal would revitalize Hamas, make it less dependent on Abbas and possibly scuttle the unity agreement.
Abbas and his Western-backed Palestinian Authority have largely been sidelined in the past week, unable to change the course of events.
Hamas' popularity tends to rise when it fights Israel, usually at the expense of Abbas, who continues to advocate negotiating a deal with Israel on Palestinian statehood.
The Palestinian Authority's health minister, Jawad Awwad, who had traveled to Gaza to deliver medicine to the territory's largest hospital, was chased off by stone throwers. Hamas officials later apologized to him.
In Israel, there was also domestic political fallout.
Netanyahu is under a lot of pressure from hawks in his Cabinet and the ruling Likud Party to launch a ground offensive to put an end to the rocket fire. He faced blistering criticism from the right over initially agreeing to the Egyptian truce plan.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called a news conference in which he said Israel should not hesitate and "go all the way." He said the operation should conclude with the Israeli military controlling all of the Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, fired Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, one of his fiercest critics who didn't tone down his rhetoric during the offensive. Netanyahu said that by attacking the government at a time of war, Danon played into the hands of Hamas.
Heller reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.