News Middle East

Monday 22 September 2014

Israel targets Hamas leaders in new wave of strikes following ceasefire collapse

Published 16/07/2014 | 07:30

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Israel has fired missiles at the homes of four top Hamas leaders, the militant group said, in a resumed bombardment of Gaza following a failed Egyptian ceasefire effort.

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Health officials said meanwhile that the Palestinian death toll in nine days of fighting had reached 204.

Today's bombings came after Hamas rejected the Egyptian truce proposal yesterday and instead launched more rockets at Israel.

Israel warned Hamas would pay a high price and also called on tens of thousands of residents in areas close to the Gaza-Israel border to leave their homes, presumably ahead of more air strikes.

Among those ordered to leave were the patients of a rehabilitation hospital. But hospital director Basman Ashi said everyone was staying put and foreign volunteers had arrived to serve as human shields.

The Egyptian proposal, initially accepted by Israel, had been the first attempt to end the fighting.

But it unravelled in less than a day, a sign that it will be harder than before to reach a truce. Hamas does not consider Egypt's current rulers - who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo a year ago - to be fair brokers and violence is bound to escalate in the coming days.

Hamas believes it has little to lose by continuing to fight, while a truce on unfavorable terms could further weaken its grip on the Gaza Strip, a territory it seized in 2007. Underscoring that position, Gaza militants fired more than 120 rockets and mortar rounds at Israel yesterday during what Egypt had hoped would be a period of de-escalation.

A particularly heavy barrage came around dusk, with more than 40 rockets hitting Israel in just a few minutes, including one that fell on an empty school. TV footage showed children cowering behind a wall in Tel Aviv's main square as sirens went off. An Israeli man in his 30s was killed near the Gaza border when he was delivering food to soldiers.

In an evening address live on TV, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that after Hamas' rejection of the ceasefire, Israel had "no choice" but to respond more forcefully.

"Hamas chose to continue fighting and will pay the price for that decision," he said. "When there is no ceasefire, our answer is fire."

After holding its fire for six hours, the Israeli air force resumed its heavy bombardment of Gaza, launching 33 strikes from mid-afternoon, the military said. In all, Israeli aircraft struck close to 1,700 times since July 8, while Gaza militants fired more than 1,200 rockets at Israel.

Mr Netanyahu said Israel would have liked to see a diplomatic solution, but would keep attacking until rocket fire stopped and Hamas' military capabilities were diminished.

The Israeli leader said he would "widen and increase" the campaign against Hamas, but it remains unclear if that will include a ground offensive.

Israel has warned it might send troops into Gaza and has massed thousands of soldiers on the border. But entering Gaza is likely to drive up casualties on both sides. Israel has hesitated in the past to embark on ground operations for fear of getting entangled in the densely-populated territory of 1.7 million.

Last night the Israeli military told residents of the northern town of Beit Lahiya and the Gaza City neighbourhoods of Shijaiyah and Zeitoun in automated phone calls to leave their homes by early today.

Sami Wadiya, a resident of one of the areas likely to be targeted, said he would not leave his home. "We know it's risky, but there are no secure places to go to," he said.

In Washington, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Israel had the right to defend itself but "no one wants to see a ground war".

"Our effort remains focused on seeing if we can return to a ceasefire," she said.

The current round has been the deadliest since a major Israeli military offensive in the winter of 2008-09. The previous outbreak of cross-border violence, in 2012, eventually ended with the help of Egypt, at the time seen as a trusted broker by Hamas.

Hamas officials rejected the current Egyptian plan, noting they were not consulted by Cairo. Some portrayed the truce offer as an ultimatum presented to Hamas by Israel and Egypt.

The officials said the Egyptian plan offered no tangible achievements, particularly on easing the border blockade that has been enforced by Israel and Egypt to varying degrees since 2007.

"The siege on Gaza must be broken and the people of Gaza should live freely like other people of the world," Moussa Abu Marzouk, a top Hamas official, said. "There should be a new equation so that we will not have a war on Gaza every two years."

Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said the movement wanted additional mediators and international guarantees of any deal.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas' main political rival, will meet Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo today, then fly to Turkey for top-level talks.

Mr Abbas and his Western-backed Palestinian Authority have largely been sidelined in the past week, unable to change the course of events. Hamas' popularity tends to rise when it fights Israel, usually at the expense of Mr Abbas, who continues to advocate negotiating a deal with Israel on Palestinian statehood.

The Palestinian Authority's health minister, Jawad Awwad, who had travelled to Gaza to deliver medicine to the territory's largest hospital, was chased off by stone throwers. Hamas officials later apologised to him.

In Israel, Mr Netanyahu is under a lot of pressure from hawks in his cabinet and the ruling Likud Party to launch a ground offensive to put an end to the rocket fire and has faced blistering criticism from the right over initially agreeing to the Egyptian truce plan.

He has, meanwhile, sacked deputy defence minister Danny Danon, one of his fiercest critics, saying that by attacking the government at a time of war, Mr Danon played into the hands of Hamas.

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