Israeli ground forces are poised to invade the Gaza Strip for the first time in almost four years amid efforts by Egypt and Turkey to help end the rocket battles that have killed 71 Palestinians and three Israelis.
“We will continue to act, to attack and perhaps even to intensify the operation,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during an appearance near Tel Aviv yesterday, according to an e- mailed statement. “If there is a need, we won’t hesitate to undertake ground maneuvers.”
The escalating conflict between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, threatens a region still unbalanced after a wave of popular uprisings last year. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
Amid cease-fire efforts, air-raid sirens sounded twice in Tel Aviv yesterday as four rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. A rocket was fired at Jerusalem on Nov. 16, the first such attack in decades. At least 1,100 missiles, rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel since Nov. 14, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Some 14,000 have been fired from Gaza in the past 11 years.
An Israeli official arrived at the Cairo airport yesterday, an Egyptian security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment to the media. The arrival came as Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have pushed to secure a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Amr Roushdi, contacted by text message, said he had no information “whatsoever” on the arrival. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment on the report.
“I strongly urge the parties to cooperate with all efforts led by Egypt to reach an immediate cease-fire,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said in a statement released yesterday in New York. “I am heading to the region to appeal personally for ending the violence and contribute to ongoing efforts to that end.”
The Israeli strikes killed 19 Palestinians in Gaza yesterday, including 11 members of an extended family by the name of Al-Dalou, said Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for the Hamas- run Gaza Health Ministry. At least half of the Palestinians killed since the air strikes started last week were civilians, including women and children, he said.
Israel says its military goal is to make Palestinians in Gaza stop firing the rockets that have killed three Israeli civilians.
“Let’s understand what the precipitating event was that was causing the crisis, and that was an ever-escalating number of missiles,” U.S. President Barack Obama said at a press conference in Bangkok, where he began a three-nation trip. “We will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”
U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats, speaking yesterday on “Fox News Sunday,” called Hamas “bad actors” and said “no nation would put up with what Israel has up until now.” On the same show, Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said “if sending ground troops in is the only way they can clean out these nests of rockets being fired at them, you know, you can’t blame them for doing it.”
Hamas said the Israeli actions won’t stop it from operating.
“The government and the Palestinian people are united to confront the aggression,” it said in an e-mailed statement. “It is the right of Palestinian people and the government to resist the occupation.”
The Iron Dome, which targets projectiles heading toward populated areas, has intercepted 287 of those fired from Gaza, according to the Israeli army.
In addition, Israeli officials said hackers have sought to bring down government websites. Israeli websites have been hit by 44 million cyber attacks since the Gaza operation started Nov. 14, all but one of which were stopped, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told reporters in Jerusalem.
Israeli stocks and bonds rose for the first time in three days on bets international mediation will lead to a cease-fire. The TA-25 index advanced 1.4 percent to 1,198.38 in Tel Aviv. The yield on the 5.5 percent Mimshal Shiklit bonds due January 2022 dropped six basis points to 3.95 percent.
Egyptian stocks fell the most in more than four months as the government struggled to contain public anger over Israel’s attacks in Gaza. The EGX 30 retreated 3.3 percent, the most since July 9, to 5,478.38 at the close in Cairo.
World leaders including Obama have called for an end to the conflict before it escalates. Israel deployed tanks near the border, threatening the first ground invasion of Gaza since an assault that began in December 2008 and left more than 1,100 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead.
Egypt is trying with Turkey, Arab nations and the world’s leading powers, such as the U.S., France and Britain, to get a cease-fire agreement from both sides, Mursi said yesterday.
Israel risks losing “a lot of international support and sympathy” if it mounts a ground invasion to stop the rocket attacks, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told Sky News television.
Israeli fighter jets hit about 150 targets in Gaza yesterday, bringing the number of air strikes over the past four days to 1,100, an army spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity in compliance with military rules.
The standoff in Gaza is putting pressure on Arab leaders such as Mursi, who came to power after an uprising that ousted U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak last year and has pledged stronger support for Palestinians. Tens of thousands have rallied in Cairo to protest the Israeli attacks, and there were similar demonstrations in Turkey, Iran and other Islamic countries.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah group rules in the West Bank, has said he’ll seek to upgrade Palestinian diplomatic status at the United Nations later this month to “non-member observer state” in the 193-member General Assembly. Abbas failed last year to secure approval in the 15- member Security Council for statehood recognition after opposition from the U.S.
Israeli leaders say the Palestinian bid is a unilateral step to obtain statehood without negotiating, and will be used to try to isolate Israel diplomatically.
“If we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, then the likelihood of us getting onto any two-state solution is pushed further in the future,” Obama said. “It starts with no more missiles fired into Israel’s territory.”
Senator John McCain of Arizona suggested using an envoy such as former President Bill Clinton to start negotiations.
“We need a person of enormous prestige and influence to have these parties sit down together,” McCain said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The Arab League urged its member nations to end normalization of relations with Israel because of the Israeli air offensive in Gaza, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el- Arabi said in a statement after the group’s meeting in Cairo.
The league has endorsed the so-called Arab Peace Initiative, which was originally proposed in 2002. It offers to normalize relations between Israel and all Arab states in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War, including the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab League members that have full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Hamas may want to prolong the conflict for a while “to keep earning more popular support among the Arab peoples and Arab leaders,” said As’ad Abu Sharkh, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City.
The group probably isn’t interested in a “fragile” cease- fire that could be violated, Abu Sharkh said. Instead, it seeks “a long-term truce with guarantees that Israel won’t violate it again,” so that Palestinians can rebuild Gaza, he said.