November 20, 2012

US sends Clinton to Mideast to try to end conflict

Israel and Gaza's militant Hamas rulers have staked out tough, hard-to-bridge positions, and the gaps keep alive the threat of an Israeli ground invasion.

Amy Teibel and Karin Laub / The Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Efforts to end a week-old convulsion of Israeli-Palestinian violence drew in the world's top diplomats on Tuesday, with President Barack Obama dispatching his secretary of state to the region on an emergency mission and the U.N. chief appealing from Cairo for an immediate cease-fire.

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An Israeli soldier stands on a tank at a staging area near the Israel Gaza Strip Border, southern Israel, early Tuesday.

AP

Israel and Gaza's militant Hamas rulers have staked out tough, hard-to-bridge positions, and the gaps keep alive the threat of an Israeli ground invasion. On Tuesday, grieving Gazans were burying militants and civilians killed in ongoing Israeli airstrikes, and barrages of rockets from Gaza sent terrified Israelis scurrying to take cover.

From Egypt, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he came to the region because of the "alarming situation."

"This must stop, immediate steps are needed to avoid further escalation, including a ground operation," Ban said. "Both sides must hold fire immediately ... Further escalation of the situation could put the entire region at risk."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton departed for the Mideast on Tuesday from Cambodia, where she had accompanied Obama on a visit. Clinton is to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and Egyptian leaders in Cairo, according to U.S. and Palestinian officials.

The U.S. considers Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide and other attacks, to be a terror group and does not meet with its officials. Washington blames Hamas rocket fire for the latest eruption of violence and says Israel has the right to defend itself. At the same time, it has cautioned that a ground invasion could send casualties spiraling.

By Tuesday, 115 Palestinians, including 54 civilians, have been killed since Israel mounted an air onslaught that has so far included nearly 1,500 strikes. Some 840 people have been wounded, including 225 children, Gaza health officials said.

Three Israeli civilians have also been killed and dozens wounded since the fighting began last week, the numbers possibly kept down by a rocket-defense system Israel developed with U.S. funding. More than 1,000 rockets have been fired at Israel this week, the military said.

Netanyahu said Tuesday that Israel wouldn't balk at a broader military operation.

"I prefer a diplomatic solution," Netanyahu said in a statement after meeting with Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who is also in the region trying to advance peace efforts. "But if the fire continues, we will be forced to take broader measures and will not hesitate to do so."

Successive Israeli governments have struggled to come up with an effective policy toward Hamas.

Neither Israel's economic blockade of the territory of 1.6 million people nor bruising military strikes have cowed Gaza's Islamists, weakened their grip on the coastal strip or fire rockets at the Jewish state.

An Israeli ground invasion would risk Israeli troop losses, and could send the number of Palestinian civilian casualties ballooning — a toll Israel could be reluctant to risk just four years after its last invasion drew allegations of war crimes.

Still, with Israeli elections just two months away, polls show Israeli public sentiment has lined up staunchly behind the Netanyahu government's offensive.

Turkey's foreign minister and a delegation of Arab League foreign ministers headed to Gaza on Tuesday on a separate truce mission. Before setting off, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signaled Turkey was in contact with Israel bout a truce — an important development given the two countries' chilly ties.

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