Israel extends truce in Gaza Strip
JERUSALEM — Under intense diplomatic pressure, Israeli leaders decided late Saturday to extend a halt to hostilities in the Gaza Strip through midnight today, but said their troops would maintain defensive positions and continue to ferret out tunnels from Gaza into Israeli territory.
Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that dominates Gaza, rejected the extension of the temporary cease-fire requested by the United Nations, after renewing rocket fire on Israel on Saturday evening.
“Any humanitarian cease-fire that doesn’t secure the withdrawal of occupation soldiers from inside Gaza’s borders, allow citizens back into homes, and secure the evacuation of the injured is unacceptable,” Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said in a brief statement.
It remains unclear how things will unfold. Twice before in the bloody 19-day battle, Israel embraced cease-fire initiatives only to resume its assault within hours when Hamas did not follow suit. But the end of a previous Gaza battle, in 2009, began with both sides declaring unilateral cease-fires.
With the Palestinian death toll topping 1,100 after 147 bodies were recovered from the rubble during Saturday’s lull — and with 42 Israeli soldiers killed in combat — calls for calm have only grown more urgent.
Secretary of State John Kerry, whose plea for a seven-day cease-fire was rebuffed by both sides on Friday night, convened Arab and European foreign ministers for another round of talks in Paris to press for an extension of Saturday’s initial 12-hour pause. His calculation seemed to be that a succession of short truces might yet be cobbled together to begin unwinding the conflict.
For Israel, accepting the cease-fire extension looked like a win-win: an opportunity to thwart the threat of tunnels that could be used to attack or kidnap its citizens, without risking more of the civilian casualties that have catapulted world opinion against it.
It was also a way for Israel to regain the diplomatic high ground and, if Hamas indeed keeps firing, buttress its argument that its operation is defensive.
Hamas too faced pressure to accept the truce, not only from international negotiators. A quiet day would allow battered Gaza residents to prepare for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that ends the holy month of Ramadan, early this week. It would also give their leaders time to regroup militarily and to press their demands in negotiations for a broader cease-fire agreement.
“The people here in Gaza have had enough, and honestly they are pushing Hamas for a cease-fire,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al Azhar University. “People are mad at Israel but they are also mad at Hamas — enough is enough. The situation that is existing now is just a lot of destruction, a lot of sadness, and people want to breathe. As long as Israel is not killing Palestinians, it’s like, OK.”
There was still the possibility that Hamas’ rejection of the cease-fire would not be accompanied by a spray of rockets, a calm that Israel would presumably reciprocate, allowing a lull to continue despite a face-saving rejection.
Significant gaps remain on the parameters of a durable truce. Hamas wants the release of high-profile prisoners along with open border crossings into Gaza and a lifting of Israel’s restrictions on fishing, farming and trade. Israel wants international guarantees that Gaza will be demilitarized, including a monitoring system to ensure that imported supplies would not be used to rebuild tunnels.
The longer the temporary truces last, the more tunnels Israel can destroy, and the easier it would be for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sell a cease-fire to his cabinet and constituents. The military said its troops found four new tunnel shafts during Saturday’s 12-hour pause; since the ground operation began July 17, a spokesman said, 31 tunnels have been unearthed and 15 destroyed.
In these cease-fires, “We are allowed to destroy the tunnels,” said Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli chief of military intelligence. “This was the mission anyway, so why not do it with no fire around?
“The dilemma for the Israelis will be, when we will end this mission? Is that enough, or do we have to go to another stage? Do we have to scale up to increase the pressure on Hamas?” he said. “But this is not today and not tomorrow.”
Kerry, in Paris, reiterated his position that any temporary arrangement needed to be followed by an enduring solution that addressed both Israel’s security demands and Gaza’s economic crisis.
“The tunnels have to be dealt with — we understand that, we are working at that,” he said. “By the same token, the Palestinians can’t have a cease-fire in which they think the status quo is going to stay. Palestinians need to live with dignity, with some freedom, with goods that can come in and out, and they need a life that is free from the current restraints.”
Though Kerry said Friday that his plan was “within the same framework” as an Egyptian initiative that Israel embraced on July 15 but Hamas rejected, some Israeli officials were irked that Kerry’s Paris invitation list included the foreign ministers of Turkey and Qatar. Those two nations have lately been the prime political and financial support for Hamas and Gaza, and Israel has tried to quash a separate Qatari cease-fire proposal.
Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah of Qatar said at a joint appearance with Kerry that Gaza “deserves” its own seaport, even “if it’s under international supervision.” Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoglu set broader goals: “to reach a sustainable cease-fire, and at the end of these efforts, to have a two-state solution, which is the real solution for all these disasters and bloodshed.”
Kerry departed for Washington on Saturday night as Israel’s security Cabinet was accepting the 24-hour extension in the pause. Even as the Cabinet met, more than a dozen rockets had soared into southern and central Israel, four of them intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system. Hamas claimed responsibility for firing two at Tel Aviv.
The Israeli military had earlier warned Gaza residents not to return to evacuated areas where heavy fighting had occurred, saying those who do “are placing themselves at risk and are jeopardizing their own safety.” Israel “is continuing to operate against the tunnel threat and maintain its defensive positions in preparation for further operational activity,” it said in a statement.
In announcing the cease-fire extension, a senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Cabinet meetings are confidential, said, “Obviously our soldiers can protect themselves if they are attacked, and obviously we will continue to work on the tunnels.”
Michael Herzog, a retired Israeli general and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said there was some risk to even a temporary cease-fire.
“There was a feeling that we were gaining momentum, so there was reluctance to stop that moment, there was concern that they will use this to regroup and breathe fresh air and so forth,” said Herzog, who consults frequently with cabinet members. “I think people understand the need to go for humanitarian lull or truce for a while, but then the question is, what follows?”