Middle East

Moment of truth on Gaza truce

A firefighter tries to extinguish a blaze after an Israeli airstrike on a building that houses international media offices in Gaza.

GAZA: The fate of an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire to end seven days of Israeli-Palestinian fighting will be known Tuesday following another day of violence that saw 30 Palestinians killed, bringing the death toll in the conflict to 111.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his inner circle discussed late Monday whether to accept a cease-fire proposed by Egyptian mediators or expand Israel’s air assault on the Gaza Strip into a ground invasion. Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza have killed at least 108 people, and hospital officials in the enclave said more than half of those were non-combatants.

Three Israeli civilians died Thursday in a rocket strike.

A Palestinian official told The Daily Star that the cease-fire agreement was “70 percent likely to be upheld,” but there was no confirmation of the deal from the Israeli negotiating team.

The Cairo-drafted proposal, based on a series of Palestinian demands, calls for an initial 24-hour cessation of hostilities, during which the finer details of a sustained cease-fire could be determined.

The Palestinians have called for complete freedom of movement within the Gaza Strip and the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt, the official told The Daily Star. The Egyptian proposal also specified that both sides should continue to hold their fire if the truce is breached.

As cease-fire discussions continued, a hail of rocket fire rained down on Gaza, following several strike-free hours, killing a family of four – including two toddlers, one 4 years old and the other 18 months old in the northern Gaza village of Beit Lahiya, medical sources said.

For the second straight day, Israeli missiles blasted a tower block in the city of Gaza housing international media. Two people were killed there, one of them an Islamic Jihad militant.

Militants in the Gaza Strip fired 110 rockets at southern Israel, causing no casualties, police said. Israel said it had conducted over 80 airstrikes on the enclave. The figures meant a relative easing in ferocity – over 1,000 rockets have been fired in the six days, and 1,350 airstrikes carried out.

U.S. President Barack Obama called Egypt’s President Mohammad Mursi, who has been trying to use his influence with Hamas, his fellow Islamists who run Gaza, to broker a halt to the violence.

Obama “underscored the necessity of Hamas ending rocket fire,” the White House said.

To Mursi and in a subsequent call to Netanyahu, Obama said he regretted the deaths of Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, touring the region in the hopes of helping to broker a peace deal, arrived in Cairo, where he met Egypt’s foreign minister in preparation for talks with Mursi Tuesday. He also plans to meet Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, said a truce was possible but the Islamist group, in charge of the Gaza Strip since 2007, would not accept Israeli demands and wanted Israel to halt its strikes first and lift its blockade of the enclave.

“Whoever started the war must end it,” he told a news conference in Cairo, adding that Netanyahu, who faces an election in January, had asked for a truce, an assertion a senior Israeli official described as untrue.

Meshaal said Netanyahu feared the domestic consequences of a “land war” of the kind Israel launched four years ago: “He can do it, but he knows that it will not be a picnic and that it could be his political death and cost him the elections.”

Osama Hamdan, a Hamas politburo member, speaking on Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV channel, said that the organization has “more surprises” in store for Israel if the conflict escalates. Hamas has rockets that are capable of hitting “further than Tel Aviv,” he warned.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon has said that “if there is quiet in the south and no rockets and missiles are fired at Israel’s citizens, nor terrorist attacks engineered from the Gaza Strip, we will not attack.”

“Israel is prepared and has taken steps and is ready for a ground incursion which will deal severely with the Hamas military machine,” an official close to Netanyahu told Reuters.

“We would prefer to see a diplomatic solution that would guarantee the peace for Israel’s population in the south. If that is possible, then a ground operation would no longer be required. If diplomacy fails, we may well have no alternative but to send in ground forces,” he added.

Although 84 percent of Israelis support the current Gaza assault, according to a poll by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, only 30 percent want an invasion.

“I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of negotiation, [means] it is very difficult to predict,” Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, who visited Gaza Friday in a show of support for its people, said in an interview in Cairo for the Reuters Middle East Investment Summit.

Egypt, where Mursi has his roots in Hamas’ spiritual mentors the Muslim Brotherhood, is acting as a mediator in the biggest test yet of Cairo’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel since the fall of Hosni Mubarak early last year.

The Gaza fighting adds to worries of world powers watching an already combustible region, where a civil war in Syria threatens to spread beyond its borders.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 20, 2012, on page 1.




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