GAZA/BEIRUT/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel intensified attacks on the Gaza Strip overnight Wednesday as officials announced an agreement on an Egyptian-brokered truce had been delayed at the last minute, pushing the conflict in to its eighth deadly day.
Hopes had been high that the diplomatic push had cemented a deal to end the violence that has seen 136 Palestinians and five Israelis killed, after Ayman Taha, a Hamas official, said that a cease-fire had been reached and would go into effect within hours and an Egyptian official said an agreement would be reached Tuesday.
But later in the evening, the deal appeared to be delayed.
A senior official from a Palestinian faction involved in the talks told The Daily Star the agreement was effectively finalized, but that the Israelis had delayed signing, objecting to the fact that Hamas had publicly announced the deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev told Reuters that Taha’s announcement was premature and Israeli military operations in Gaza would continue in parallel with diplomacy.
A Hamas official told Reuters the efforts to broker a truce had been held up because the Israeli government had yet to respond to proposals, indicating there would be no cease-fire until Wednesday at the earliest.
“The Israeli side has not responded yet, so we will not hold a [news] conference this evening and must wait until tomorrow,” Ezzat al-Rishq, a senior Hamas leader, said.
Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi, perhaps the most important interlocutor between Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and the Israelis, earlier said the negotiations between the two sides would yield “positive results” during the coming hours.
In what appeared to be a last-minute burst of heavy fire, Israeli tanks and gunboats shelled targets late Tuesday as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Jerusalem from an Asian summit for urgent talks with Netanyahu.
Six Palestinians were killed in Israeli raids Tuesday night, raising the day’s toll to 26.
The Hamas emergency services said that two brothers in the southern town of Rafah were killed in a strike that hit their motorcycle.
Four others were killed in night raids around the central town of Deir al-Balah.
Earlier, two cameramen from Hamas-owned Al-Aqsa TV were killed in Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip, according to Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra, who said the strike hit a car in Gaza City’s Nasser area that was clearly marked as a press vehicle.
The Israeli army had no comment on the apparent targeting of a press vehicle, confirming only that the air force had carried out several attacks in the area.
An AFP journalist later reported a building housing the AFP Gaza office was hit in an Israeli airstrike.
Apart from the cameramen, Qudra said three people were killed in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, six were killed in a strike on a car in the Sabra neighborhood and another person died in an airstrike on the northern town of Beit Hanun.
Separately, the Hamas ambulance service announced that two children had died in a strike on Gaza City’s Zeitun neighborhood, with a statement saying they had arrived at the city’s Shifa hospital “in pieces.”
Elsewhere, 15-year-old Yahya Mohammad Awad was killed as he hunted birds near the beach when a missile hit the northern Sudaniya area, and three men died in the nearby town of Beit Lahiya and in Mughraqa, just south of Gaza City. The overall Palestinian death toll in the violence that began on Nov. 14 was 136 as of Tuesday night.
More than 1,000 people have also been wounded in Gaza since the conflict began with Israel’s targeting of a senior Hamas military commander.
Five Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza – four civilians and one soldier – including two people Tuesday. Israeli police said more than 150 rockets were fired from Gaza by the evening.
In an attack claimed by Hamas’s armed wing, a longer-range rocket targeted Jerusalem Tuesday for the second time since Israel launched the air offensive.
The rocket, which fell harmlessly in the occupied West Bank, triggered warning sirens in the holy city at about the same time U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Jerusalem for cease-fire discussions. Another rocket damaged an apartment building in Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv.
The Jewish state launched the campaign last week with the declared aim of halting the rocketing of its towns from the Palestinian enclave, ruled by the Hamas militant group that does not recognize Israel as a state.
Arriving in Jerusalem late Tuesday, Clinton met with Netanyahu.
“The American commitment to Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering. That is why we believe it is essential to de-escalate the situation in Gaza,” Clinton said at a brief news conference ahead of the closed-door talks.
Netanyahu reaffirmed that Israel is prepared to escalate its Gaza Strip offensive but would prefer a long-term diplomatic solution to the threat of rockets from the Palestinian enclave.
“If there is a possibility of achieving a long-term solution to this problem with diplomatic means, we prefer that,” he said in a public statement alongside Clinton.
“But if not, I’m sure you understand that Israel will have to take whatever action is necessary to defend its people.”
Khaled Meshaal, exiled leader of Hamas, said Monday that Israel must halt its military action and lift its blockade of the Palestinian enclave in exchange for a truce.
Both Netanyahu, favored to win a January national election, and U.S. President Barack Obama have said they want a diplomatic solution, rather than a possible Israeli ground operation in the densely populated territory, home to 1.7 million Palestinians.
“No country would tolerate rocket attacks against its cities and against its civilians. Israel cannot tolerate such attacks,” Netanyahu said earlier with Ban at his side.
Ban condemned Palestinian rocket attacks, but urged Israel to show “maximum restraint.”
“Further escalation benefits no one,” he said.
Along Israel’s sandy, fenced-off border with the Gaza Strip, Israeli tanks, artillery and infantry massed in field encampments awaiting any orders to go in. Some 45,000 reserve troops have been called up since the offensive was launched.
On a solidarity mission to the war-torn strip, foreign ministers from the Arab League said the world should focus on ending Israeli occupation instead of seeking a truce in Gaza.
“The real problem is not a truce,” Egyptian Nabil Elarabi told reporters as he led the top-level delegation of nine Arab ministers.
“The real problem that the Arab and Islamic countries and all friendly countries in the world must focus on is ending the occupation,” the Arab League secretary-general said.
Egypt has been a key player in efforts to end the most serious fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants since a three-week Israeli invasion of the enclave in the winter of 2008-09. Egypt has a 1979 peace treaty with Israel seen by the West as the cornerstone of Middle East peace, but that has been tested as never before by the removal of U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak as president last year in the Arab Spring uprisings.
Mursi, elected Egyptian president this year, is a veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood, spiritual mentors of Hamas, but says he is committed to Egypt’s treaty with Israel.
Mursi has warned Netanyahu of serious consequences from an invasion of the kind that killed more than 1,400 people in Gaza four years ago. But he has been careful so far not to alienate Israel, or Washington, a major aid donor to Egypt.