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Gaza: Ceasefire hopes slim as death toll soars above 100

Hamas demands end to Israeli blockade as UN chief arrives for talks

By Catrina Stewart in Cairo and Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

The death toll in Gaza soared above 100 yesterday on the sixth day of Israel's military operation, despite frantic diplomatic efforts in Cairo to end the fighting.

Inside the beleaguered Hamas-controlled enclave, Israeli aircraft and artillery pounded what the army described as "terrorist targets", but many civilians, including children, were among the victims. The Israeli army said it had attacked 1,400 targets, including individual militants, weapons storage, production facilities and smuggling tunnels.



An Israeli strike on the Al-Shorouk tower block housing several international media bureaux unleashed a furious response from journalists in Gaza and abroad. Militant group Islamic Jihad later conceded that four of its most senior figures had been killed in the attack.



Yesterday's strikes took the number of Palestinians killed since the Israeli operation began last Wednesday to 100, including 53 civilians, Gaza health officials say. Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza. Palestinian militants unleashed more than 100 rockets into southern Israel yesterday.



Hopes of an imminent ceasefire seemed slim yesterday as the Hamas leaders stuck to demands for a lifting of Israel's five-year blockade. UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo to appeal for calm as Turkish and Qatari officials joined mediation efforts to end the hostilities.



Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, dispatched to Gaza in a show of support for the Palestinians last week, was cautiously optimistic: "Negotiations are going on as we speak, and I hope we will reach something soon that will stop this violence and counter-violence," he said. "I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of negotiation [means] it is very difficult to predict."



Talks looked set to be difficult, however, with Hamas making sweeping demands that would see it emerge stronger following this latest round of violence. Hamas, bolstered by the Arab Spring movements and the rise of the Islamists in Egypt, is seeking an end to the five-year blockade of Gaza, and an end to targeted assassinations. Israel, meanwhile, is seeking assurances of a long-term ceasefire on the Palestinian side, and international guarantees that Hamas will not simply shift its base of operations to the Sinai. It has warned that it will continue the air campaign as long as the rocket fire continues, and ground troops have massed on the border.



But exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal remained defiant yesterday, insisting that while the militant group was not seeking an escalation, it would not cede ground. "We don't accept Israeli conditions because it is the aggressor," he told reporters in Egypt. "We want a ceasefire along with meeting our demands."



Israel's three top decision-makers – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – had ended a night-long meeting at 4am yesterday with a decision to give more time for Egyptian mediation before invading. A senior Israeli official told Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid the odds were "50-50" between a ceasefire and a ground operation.



Polls show a majority of Israelis back their government, but Mr Netanyahu may be running out of time. Echoing warnings from President Obama, David Cameron and other leaders, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief of staff, and Giora Eiland, a former general and national security adviser, said there was no need to invade Gaza and urged the government to negotiate.



"An agreement with Hamas could be reached within a few days, and it would be preferable to a ground operation," said Mr Eiland.



Turkish and Qatari officials have joined mediation efforts to end the latest round of hostilities.



BACKGROUND TO GAZA CONFLICT

With little notice, Israel has launched a blistering air offensive against the Gaza Strip's ruling Hamas militant group. Here is a look at why the violence erupted, the goals of the warring sides and how it may end.

LIGHTNING STRIKE

Israel opened its offensive with a surprise air strike on November 14 that killed the shadowy leader of Hamas' military wing.

Since then it has carried out hundreds of air strikes in what it says is a systematic campaign to halt years of rocket attacks launched from Gaza. While Israel claims to have inflicted heavy damage, dozens of rockets have continued to fly out of Gaza each day.

Israel launched the operation in response to days of rocket attacks out of Gaza, highlighted by a rare missile strike on an Israeli military vehicle that wounded four soldiers. But the operation was actually years in the making.

Since a previous Israeli offensive four years ago, Hamas has restocked its arsenal with more sophisticated and powerful weapons smuggled in from Egypt through underground tunnels.

After a lull following Israel's previous offensive, rocket fire has steadily climbed the past two years. The Israeli military says more than 700 rockets were launched into Israel this year before it launched the offensive last week. In this environment, Israeli officials have said it was only a matter of time before a new round of fighting broke out.

THE BATTLEFIELD

Hamas seized control of Gaza, a densely populated strip of land sandwiched between southern Israel and Egypt's Sinai desert, five years ago from the rival Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas, a militant group sworn to Israel's destruction, has developed is rocket arsenal to the point where nearly half of Israel's population is in range.

WHY FIRE ROCKETS?

Palestinian militants, led by Hamas, say the rocket fire is a legitimate response to continued Israeli attacks. They also claim they are resisting Israeli occupation of the territory. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, ending a 38-year military occupation. But it has maintained a blockade of the territory in a step it says is needed to prevent arms smuggling.

In the murky world of Gaza politics, the attacks also stem from internal rivalries between groups eager to prove their militant credentials. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu says no country would tolerate repeated missile attacks on its civilians.

RISKY BUSINESS

Prolonged fighting carries great risks for both sides. As Israel presses forward, the number of Palestinian civilian casualties is likely to rise - a scenario that could quickly turn international opinion against it. Israel's previous offensive left hundreds of civilians dead, drawing international condemnation and war crimes accusations. By continuing to fire rockets, Hamas raises the risk of tougher Israeli attacks, including a possible ground offensive. Well aware of these risks, both sides are working through mediators to arrange a cease-fire.

TERMS OF THE DEAL

Israel wants a halt to the rocket attacks and an end to arms smuggling into Gaza, most likely in a deal that is guaranteed by Egypt or other international parties. Hamas wants a halt to Israeli assassinations of its leaders and a lifting of the Israeli blockade.

While gaps remain wide, both sides have strong interests in a deal. Bringing quiet to Israel's embattled south will make Mr Netanyahu a national hero, weeks before parliamentary elections. Hamas, branded a terrorist group by Israel and the West, has seen its influence grow as the Arab Spring brings Islamists to power across the region.

A ceasefire, particularly an arrangement guaranteed with international partners, would cement Hamas' control of Gaza and give it more of the international recognition it covets so much.

BY THE NUMBERS

More than 100 Palestinians, half of them civilians, have been killed, according to Palestinian medical officials. Three Israeli civilians have died from rocket fire.

Israel has attacked more than 1,350 targets in the current offensive, according to the Israeli army. Hamas and smaller armed groups have responded with nearly 600 rockets, the army says.

Israel says its new "Iron Dome" rocket-defence system has shot down more than 300 incoming projectiles.

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