Israel on Friday rejected proposals for a cease-fire in its deadly conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and was reportedly pursuing changes to a deal that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had brokered with regional proxies — including Turkey and Qatar — to put an end to the 18-day conflict that is threatening to spill over into the occupied West Bank.
With Israel and Hamas-led fighters setting seemingly irreconcilable terms for a truce that mediators hope will begin by the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr holiday next week, Kerry was working the phones from Egypt, while aides made clear his patience was limited.
Kerry’s proposal called for a 7-day humanitarian halt to the conflict, while parties entered into intense negotiations to reach a mutually acceptable deal.
The urgency was spurred on Thursday by the killing of 15 people as they sheltered at a U.N.-run school in the northern Gaza Strip, which local officials blamed on Israeli shelling.
On Friday, Israeli strikes on 30 houses killed another 19 people, including the head of media operations for Hamas ally Islamic Jihad and his son.
Gaza officials put the number of Palestinian deaths in 18 days of conflict at 826, most of them civilians. More than 5000 have been injured. Thursday’s death toll of 115 made it among the deadliest days of the Israeli offensive.
In the occupied West Bank, where U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas governs in uneasy coordination with Israel, some 10,000 demonstrators marched in solidarity with Gaza overnight Thursday – a scale recalling mass revolts of the past. Protesters surged against an Israeli army checkpoint, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, and Palestinian medics said one was shot dead and 200 wounded when troops opened fire.
The next day, medics said five Palestinians were killed in separate incidents near the West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron, including one shooting that witnesses blamed on an apparent Jewish settler.
On Friday, Israeli paramilitary police went on high alert for flare-ups at Jerusalem’s most important mosque during prayers for the final stretch of the Ramadan Muslim holy month.
Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel’s police minister and a member of the security cabinet, said he was shuttling between consultations on how to contain the rising hostilities.
“We have had a very difficult night,” he told Israel’s Army Radio. “I hope we can get through today all right.”
Stopping the rockets
Israel said 35 of its soldiers have died in the Gaza ground invasion, whose aim, it says, is to destroy dozens of cross-border infiltration tunnels used by Hamas to threaten Israel’s southern villages and army bases. On Friday the Israel Defense Forces said that soldier Oron Shaul, whom Hamas’ winged arm claimed to have captured earlier this week, was in fact killed in action in Gaza.
Three civilians have been killed in Israel by rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza — the kind of shelling that surged last month amid Hamas anger at a crackdown on its activists in the West Bank, prompting the July 8 launch of the Israeli offensive.
A flurry of long-range rocket launches on Friday set off sirens around Israel’s capital of Tel Aviv, where witnesses reported several interceptions by the Iron Dome air defense system. A building was hit in the southern coastal town of Ashkelon, but there were no casualties.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to convene his security cabinet on Friday to discuss a limited humanitarian truce under which Palestinian movement would be freed up to allow in aid and permit the dead and wounded to be recovered.
An Israeli official briefed on security cabinet discussions envisaged an initial seven-day halt to the fighting, during which the army would keep digging up tunnels on Gaza’s eastern frontier.
“First Israel wants to hear Hamas’ response to the [Kerry] proposals,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.
Netanyahu has said any truce should lead to the eventual stripping of Gaza’s rocket arsenals — something Hamas rules out.
“We must stop the rocket launches. How this is done — whether through occupying [Gaza] or broadening [the operation] or [international] guarantees or anything else — I have to see it with my own eyes,” said Aharonovitch.
The rockets have sent Israelis regularly rushing to shelters and dented the economy despite the Iron Dome’s high success rate.
A Hamas rocket intercepted near Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday prompted the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to halt U.S. commercial flights to Israel’s main international gateway. Some European carriers followed suit.
Jolted by the blow at the height of an already stagnant summer tourism season, Israel persuaded U.S. authorities to lift the flight ban on Thursday, after which the European aviation regulator removed its advisory against flying to Ben Gurion.
In the second such salvo in two days, Hamas said it fired three rockets at the airport on Friday, in an apparent bid to cripple operations there anew. There was no word of impacts at Ben Gurion, whose passenger hall emptied at the sound of sirens.
Massacre at a school
Like Israel, Hamas was biding its time in the truce talks. “There is nothing new yet regarding the efforts to achieve calm,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Friday.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal had on Wednesday voiced support for a humanitarian truce, but only if Israel eases restrictions on Gaza’s 1.8 million people.
The group wants Egypt to open up its border with Gaza and has demanded that Israel release hundreds of prisoners rounded up in the West Bank last month after the kidnapping and killing of three Jewish teenagers.
Such concessions appear unlikely, however, as both Israel and Egypt consider Hamas a security threat.
One Cairo official said next week’s Eid al-Fitr holiday, which concludes the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, was a possible date for a truce. But U.S. officials were circumspect on progress made by Kerry — whose mediation hasinvolved Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Abbas — since Washington, like Israel, won’t deal directly with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group.
“Secretary Kerry has been on the phone all morning, and he will remain in close touch with leaders in the region over the course of the morning as he continues work on achieving a cease-fire,” said a senior U.S. State Department official in Cairo, which has been Kerry’s base over the past four days as he has tried to bring about a temporary end to the conflict.
On Thursday, a U.S. official said that Kerry was seeking a way of bridging gaps between Israel and Hamas but would not stay in the region “for an indefinite amount of time.”
More than 140,000 Palestinians have been displaced in Gaza by the fighting, many of them seeking shelter in buildings run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
A UNRWA spokesman said the agency tried in vain to arrange with Israel for an evacuation of civilians from the school in northern Beit Hanoun before it was shelled on Thursday.
Scores of crying people who had been living in the school ran with their children to a nearby hospital, where the wounded were being treated. Laila al-Shinbari, a woman who was at the school when it was hit, told Reuters that families had gathered in the courtyard expecting to be evacuated shortly in a Red Cross convoy.
“All of us sat in one place, when suddenly four shells landed on our heads … Bodies were on the ground. [There was] blood and screams. My son is dead, and all my relatives are wounded, including my other kids,” she said, weeping.
Al Jazeera and Reuters