Israel on Gaza: Our answer is fire

00:19, Jul 16 2014
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki
NEGOTIATIONS: Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki at a session of the Arab League in Cairo.

Plans for a truce have devolved into threats of a wider war as the first significant attempt to end more than a week's worth of round-the-clock fire between Israel and Hamas ended before it had even begun.

The unravelling of an Egyptian ceasefire proposal offered little immediate hope for a diplomatic solution to a conflict that has left more than 190 Palestinians in Gaza dead and that on Tuesday (local time) claimed its first Israeli fatality.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the military authorisation to use "full force" against militants in Gaza and vowed that Hamas and its allies would suffer for their decision not to halt their rocket fire into Israel.

"Hamas chose to continue fighting and will pay the price for that decision," Netanyahu said in a televised address Tuesday evening. "When there is no ceasefire, our answer is fire."

Netanyahu was under pressure from his right flank late Tuesday to authorise a risky ground invasion of Gaza aimed at ending Hamas's reign as the de facto power in the coastal strip. Reflecting tensions within his government, Netanyahu fired his deputy defence minister for publicly accusing the cabinet of not moving aggressively enough against Hamas.

The Islamist militant group also showed signs of internal strain, with its military wing vowing to escalate the conflict even as a top political leader said the group was considering Egypt's ceasefire plan.

The proposal, offered late on Monday night, called for Israel and Hamas to stop firing on Tuesday without pre-conditions, and then launch talks in Cairo within 48 hours.

Israel's security cabinet approved the deal on Monday morning, and Israel stopped firing into Gaza at 9am local time. But Hamas officials balked at the proposal, saying they had never been consulted. The rocket fire from Gaza continued unabated, and Israel resumed military operations in the territory at 3pm.

The failure of the initiative reflected the absence of a diplomatic player with both the clout and credibility to mediate the crisis. That role has traditionally been played by Egypt. But the country's military-backed government is deeply hostile to Hamas, an Islamist militant off-shoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo authorities consider a terrorist organisation.

"There's a common denominator between Israel and Egypt and that's Hamas," said former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Itzhak Levanon. "Both really want to see Hamas weakened not only militarily but also politically. There's a convergence of interests."

That convergence led Egypt to spring the ceasefire proposal without prior warning late on Monday night, said senior Hamas leader Sami Abu Zuhri, who described the move as a trap.

"We are holding in our hands a proposal we got off social media," Zuhri said. "We refuse to be dealt with in such a way."

Hamas has said it will only agree to a ceasefire with preconditions and has set forth a number of demands, including the reopening of Gaza's crossing with Egypt and the release of hundreds of prisoners swept into Israeli jails last month. Halting the rocket fire would eliminate much of the group's leverage.

By not agreeing to the truce deal, Hamas has taken some of the international pressure off Israel while deepening its own isolation.

The United States has done little to push Israel toward ending its operations in Gaza, and on Tuesday the White House made clear that the onus is on Hamas to end its fight.

"All eyes now turn to Hamas and the groups in the Palestinian territories firing rockets," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Israeli authorities believe Hamas is far weaker than it was the past two times the two combatants engaged in major combat and are reluctant to give the group anything that could be perceived as a reward for its militancy. In both previous rounds — in the winter of 2008-2009 and in late 2012 — Hamas proclaimed victory, despite the fact that the vast majority of the deaths, damage and injuries occurred in Gaza.

That has also been true this time. An Israeli military intelligence official said on Tuesday he believed that up to half of Hamas's rocket stores had been destroyed in the past eight days and that Israel had done significant damage to the group's weapons production facilities. The group's financial picture, meanwhile, is bleak after Iran and other international backers pulled their funding.

But Hamas and its allies are still believed to have thousands of rockets, some that are capable of penetrating deep into Israeli territory. On Tuesday an Israeli civilian in his 30s was killed by mortar fire near the Gaza border while delivering food to soldiers, marking the first Israeli death since the conflict began. At least 15 Israelis have been injured, police say. Israelis credit the Iron Dome missile defence system with keeping casualty numbers low.

The toll has been far greater among Palestinians, with some 1400 injured in addition to the 190 who have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. After ending its short-lived unilateral ceasefire on Tuesday afternoon, Israel struck dozens of targets in Gaza, including concealed rocket launchers, tunnels and a weapons-storage facility.

But there were indications a much broader operation could be on the way, with residents of northern Gaza advised late Tuesday to leave their homes and move to safer areas of the strip.

Israel has called up 40,000 reservists and massed three brigades on the border with Gaza in anticipation of a possible ground offensive that it has repeatedly threatened. Former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, said on Tuesday that Hamas's rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire meant "Israel will have the legitimacy to go into Gaza and to pursue its goal with more force."

Netanyahu has so far resisted such a move, reasoning that the costs would be too high. But he faces a challenge from more hawkish ministers who believe Israel must do something to permanently change the dynamic in Gaza.

One such official, deputy defence minister Danny Danon, was fired by Netanyahu on Tuesday night for publicly speaking out against the government. Danon later released a blistering statement accusing Netanyahu's government of capitulating to Hamas amid "a defeatist atmosphere".

Danon has repeatedly urged Netanyahu to take advantage of Hamas's relative weakness and try to topple the organisation.

Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza, said Hamas had indeed been substantially diminished in the past year, primarily because Egypt shut down the smuggling tunnels that had been a major source of revenue. But a ground invasion by Israeli forces, he said, would be a huge mistake.

"This," he said, "would be a catastrophe."

- Washington Post