Israel says it's extending Gaza truce
The rising death toll in the Gaza conflict propelled U.S. and European diplomats huddled in Paris to call for an extension of a 12-hour humanitarian truce Saturday that had afforded both sides a brief respite from the nearly three-week-old conflict.
Late Saturday, Israel approved a 24-hour extension of the truce, but said it would retaliate if Hamas prevented its forces from continuing to destroy tunnels through which the extremists have tried to infiltrate Israel. Hamas fighters, though, resumed firing rockets and mortar rounds into Israel.
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, rejected the truce extension, saying that any humanitarian cease-fire must include Israeli soldiers withdrawing from Gaza and allow displaced Gazans to return to their homes.
Meanwhile, Palestinian deaths rose to more than 1,035 Saturday, according to Gaza health officials, a dramatic increase since the beginning of the ground incursion. In Israel's 2009 Gaza offensive, about 1,400 Palestinians were killed.
Increasingly, the conflict is becoming a war of attrition, military and intelligence analysts say, resembling Israel's war with Lebanon more than its conflicts with Hamas in 2009 and 2012. In Lebanon, too, casualties on both sides were high. Hamas, like Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, has shown a determination to confront Israel with well-trained fighters, clear combat strategies and rockets - as well as its tunnel networks, the destruction of which is Israel's stated objective.
Now, Israel is confronting the same kinds of divisive questions it faced in Lebanon: What are its goals in Gaza, and how long does it intend to remain there to achieve them? The questions underscore the country's dilemma, torn between wanting a durable cease-fire and wanting to destroy Hamas' ability to torment Israelis.
"The more you drag on, the more you stay there, the more the exit strategy becomes a blur," said Yossi Melman, an Israeli intelligence analyst. "We will be trapped there, and we will have more casualties. If we don't have a clear vision of what we want to achieve, we unwittingly will find ourselves reoccupying Gaza again."
Neither side, nor the diplomats seeking an end to the crisis, want that. In Paris, envoys from Qatar, Turkey, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, and the United States worked late into the night Saturday in an attempt to win an extension of the cease-fire, despite the reignited tensions.
They view a truce lasting several days - the goal of diplomatic efforts that fell short last week in Cairo - as a bridge to a sustainable cease-fire that would clear a path to addressing both sides' demands. Israel wants to see Hamas demilitarized, while Hamas' core demand is the lifting of an economic blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt.
Secretary of State John Kerry met first with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, one of two key go-betweens for the United States, which is barred from direct contacts with Hamas leaders.
"Palestinians need to live with dignity, freedom, with goods that can come in and out, and they need a life that is free from the current restraints that they feel on a daily basis, and obviously free from violence," Kerry told reporters a day after his efforts to install a week-long truce fell short.
Even that oblique reference to the Israeli chokehold on Hamas-ruled Gaza was unusual for the United States, the Jewish state's principal ally and international defender.
"At the same time, Israelis need to live free from rockets and the tunnels that threaten them," Kerry said, adding, "Every conversation we had embraces a discussion about these competing interests that are real for both."
Kerry was scheduled to meet with the foreign minister of Qatar later in the day. Qatar is well-placed as an intermediary, since the rich gulf state is presumed to fund Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, and hosts leader Khaled Meshal. Qatar is the likely source of funds to pay suspended salaries for government workers in Gaza, which cash-strapped Hamas has been unable to do.
As a diplomatic breakthrough was sought, Gazans seized advantage of the pause in fighting. In the three hardest-hit towns, residents rushed back to gather belongings and search for missing relatives. Whole neighborhoods were transformed into acres of twisted metal and cement dust. More than 100 bodies were pulled from the rubble.
In southern Israel, where most of the Hamas rockets land, residents also welcomed the pause. "All of a sudden you could hear the birds again," said Adele Raemer, who lives in Kibbutz Nirim, along the border.