November 20, 2012

Israel, Hamas trade fire and tough truce talk

No deal seems near, as Gaza fighters fire rockets at Israel, which in turn exacts a far deadlier toll.

By Ibrahim Barzak and Karin Laub, The Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers traded fire and tough cease-fire proposals Monday, and threatened to escalate their border conflict if diplomacy fails. No deal appeared near.

click image to enlarge

Palestinians carry injured people out of a media center in Gaza City that was hit by an Israeli strike for the second time in two days Monday. A senior militant was killed in the strike.

The Associated Press

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Israelis hide in a concrete tube during a rocket attack from Gaza, in Nitzan, southern Israel, on Monday.

The Associated Press

WHY NOW?

ISRAEL OPENED its offensive Nov. 14 in response to days of rocket attacks out of Gaza, highlighted by a rare missile strike on an Israeli military jeep that wounded four soldiers.

But the operation was actually years in the making. Since a previous Israeli offensive four years ago, Hamas has restocked its arsenal with more sophisticated and powerful weapons smuggled in from Egypt through underground tunnels.

After a lull following Israel's previous offensive, rocket fire has steadily climbed the past two years. The Israeli military says more than 700 rockets were launched into Israel this year before it launched the offensive last week.

In this environment, Israeli officials have said it was only a matter of time before a new round of fighting broke out.

An Israeli airstrike targeting a Gaza media center killed a senior militant and engulfed the building in flames. The Israeli military said the Islamic Jihad were using space there as a command center.

Gaza fighters fired 95 rockets at southern Israeli cities, nearly one-third of them intercepted by an Israeli missile shield.

A total of 38 Palestinians were killed Monday. Two more Palestinians were killed in airstrikes past midnight, bringing the death toll since the start of Israel's offensive to 111, including 56 civilians. Some 840 people have been wounded, including 225 children, Gaza heath officials said. Three Israeli civilians have been killed and dozens have been wounded.

FOCUS ON CIVILIAN DEATHS

Over the weekend, civilian casualties in Gaza rose sharply after Israel began targeting the homes of what it said were suspected militants.

Two such strikes late Monday killed five people -- a father and his 4-year-old twin sons in northern Gaza and two people in the south, medics said.

Jamal Daloo, who lost his wife, a son, four grandchildren and five other members of his family in an attack Sunday, sat in quiet mourning Monday next to the ruins of his home, his face streaked with tears.

"The international public opinion witnessed the facts," he said, speaking as his 16-year-old daughter, Yara, was still missing under the rubble being cleared away by bulldozers. "This does not require my words."

The Israeli military says Gaza militants fire rockets from residential areas. Late Monday it released footage it said showed was a miliant weapons depot hidden in a Gaza neighborhood.

Egypt, the traditional mediator between Israel and the Arab world, was at the center of a flurry of diplomatic activity Monday. Egyptian intelligence officials met separately in Cairo with an Israeli envoy and with Khaled Mashaal, the top Hamas leader in exile.

Hamas wants Israel to halt all attacks on Gaza and lift tight restrictions on trade and movement in and out of the territory that have been in place since Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007. Israel demands an end to rocket fire from Gaza and a halt to weapons smuggling into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt.

With positions far apart on a comprehensive deal, some close to the negotiations suggested Egypt is first seeking a halt to fighting before other conditions are discussed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are in a sensitive stage.

Mashaal told reporters that Hamas would only agree to a cease-fire if its demands are met. "We don't accept Israeli conditions because it is the aggressor," he said. "We want a cease-fire along with meeting our demands."

Mashaal also suggested that Israel's threat of invading Gaza was simply a ploy. He said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "is waving the threat of a ground offensive and asking the world to pressure Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, so they pressure Hamas."

"He wants to negotiate with us under fire to impose his conditions, pretending he is acting from a position of strength," Mashaal said.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly threatened to widen the offensive, saying an invasion is an option. Israel has amassed troops on the Gaza border and begun calling up thousands of reservists.

Still, an Israeli official emphasized that Israel hopes to find a diplomatic solution.

"We prefer the diplomatic solution if it's possible. If we see it's not going to bear fruit, we can escalate," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic efforts under way. He added that Israel wants international guarantees that Hamas will not rearm or use Egypt's Sinai region, which abuts Gaza, for militant activity.

(Continued on page 2)

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