Saturday, December 20, 2014

As cease-fire with Hamas fails, Netanyahu says, 'Our answer is fire'

An Israeli soldier stands atop an armored personnel carrier near the Gaza border. Israel reported its first death in the conflict Tuesday after a man delivering food to troops was hit by mortar fire. On the Gaza side, 190 deaths have been reported.
An Israeli soldier stands atop an armored personnel carrier near the Gaza border. Israel reported its first death in the conflict Tuesday after a man delivering food to troops was hit by mortar fire. On the Gaza side, 190 deaths have been reported. ANDREW BURTON / Getty
JERUSALEM - Plans for a truce devolved Tuesday into threats of a wider war as the first significant attempt to end more than a week's worth of round-the-clock fire between Israel and Hamas ended before it had even begun.

The unraveling of an Egyptian cease-fire proposal offered little immediate hope for a diplomatic solution to a conflict that has left more than 190 Palestinians in Gaza dead and that on Tuesday claimed its first Israeli fatality.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the military authorization to use "full force" against militants in Gaza and vowed that Hamas and its allies would suffer for their decision not to halt their rocket fire into Israel.

"Hamas chose to continue fighting and will pay the price for that decision," Netanyahu said in a televised address Tuesday evening. "When there is no cease-fire, our answer is fire."

Netanyahu was under pressure from his right flank late Tuesday to authorize a risky ground invasion of Gaza aimed at ending Hamas' reign as the de facto power in the coastal strip. Reflecting tensions within his government, Netanyahu fired his deputy defense minister for publicly accusing the cabinet of not moving aggressively enough against Hamas.

The Islamist militant group also showed signs of internal strain, with its military wing vowing to escalate the conflict even as a top political leader said the group was considering Egypt's cease-fire plan.

The proposal, offered late Monday night, called for Israel and Hamas to stop firing Tuesday without preconditions, and then launch talks in Cairo within 48 hours.

Israel's security cabinet approved the deal Monday morning, and Israel stopped firing into Gaza at 9 a.m. local time. But Hamas officials balked at the proposal, saying they had never been consulted. The rocket fire from Gaza continued unabated, and Israel resumed military operations in the territory at 3 p.m.

The failure of the initiative reflected the absence of a diplomatic player with both the clout and credibility to mediate the crisis. That role has traditionally been played by Egypt. But the country's military-backed government is deeply hostile to Hamas, an Islamist militant offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which Cairo authorities consider a terrorist organization.

"There's a common denominator between Israel and Egypt, and that's Hamas," said former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Itzhak Levanon. "Both really want to see Hamas weakened not only militarily but also politically. There's a convergence of interests."

That convergence led Egypt to spring the cease-fire proposal without prior warning late Monday night, said senior Hamas leader Sami Abu Zuhri, who described the move as a trap.

"We are holding in our hands a proposal we got off social media," Zuhri said. "We refuse to be dealt with in such a way."

Hamas has said it would only agree to a cease-fire with preconditions and has set forth a number of demands, including the reopening of Gaza's crossing with Egypt and the release of hundreds of prisoners swept into Israeli jails last month. Halting the rocket fire would eliminate much of the group's leverage.

By not agreeing to the truce deal, Hamas has taken some of the international pressure off Israel while deepening its own isolation.

The United States has done little to push Israel toward ending its operations in Gaza, and on Tuesday, the White House made clear that the onus is on Hamas to end its fight.

"All eyes now turn to Hamas and the groups in the Palestinian territories firing rockets," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

Israeli authorities believe Hamas is far weaker than it was the last two times the two combatants engaged in major combat and are reluctant to give the group anything that could be perceived as a reward for its militancy. In both previous rounds - in the winter of 2008-2009 and in late 2012 - Hamas proclaimed victory even though the vast majority of the deaths, damage, and injuries occurred in Gaza.

Hamas and its allies are still believed to have thousands of rockets, some that are capable of penetrating deep into Israeli territory.

On Tuesday an Israeli civilian in his 30s was killed by mortar fire near the Gaza border while delivering food to soldiers, marking the first Israeli death since the conflict began. At least 15 Israelis have been injured, police say. Israelis credit the Iron Dome missile defense system with keeping casualty numbers low.

The toll has been far greater among Palestinians, with about 1,400 injured in addition to the 190 who have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Griff Witte and William Booth Washington Post
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