Wednesday, March 12, 2014
The Associated Press
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - An Israeli missile ripped through a two-story home in a residential area of Gaza City on Sunday, killing at least 11 civilians, including four young children and an 81-year-old woman, in the single deadliest attack of Israel's offensive against Islamic militants.
A Palestinian man cries over the body of a dead relative in the morgue of Shifa Hospital in Gaza City on Sunday. The Israeli military carried out dozens of airstrikes throughout the day, while Palestinian militants continued to barrage Israel with more than 100 rockets.
The Associated Press
U.S., BRITAIN ENGAGE IN DIPLOMATIC BALANCING ACT
BANGKOK - The United States and Britain on Sunday warned about the risks of Israel expanding its air assault on the Gaza Strip into a ground war, while vigorously defending the Jewish state's right to protect itself against rocket attacks.
The remarks by President Obama and Britain Foreign Secretary William Hague were part of a diplomatic balancing act by the West as it desperately seeks an end to the escalating violence without alienating its closest ally in the region.
"Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory," President Obama said in Bangkok at the start of a three-nation visit to Asia.
"If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that's preferable," Obama said. "It's not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It's also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they're much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded."
Hague said Hamas, Gaza's militant rulers, "bears principal responsibility" for initiating the violence and must stop all rocket attacks on Israel. But Hague also made clear the diplomatic risks of an Israeli escalation.
"A ground invasion is much more difficult for the international community to sympathize with or support, including the United Kingdom," he said.
Israeli officials say the airstrikes are aimed at ending months of rocket fire out of the Hamas-ruled territory. The Mideast ally is now at a crossroads: launch a ground invasion or pursue Egyptian-led truce efforts. But with Israel and Hamas far apart on any terms of cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting: "The Israeli military is prepared to significantly expand the operation."
The crisis threatened to overshadow Obama's trip to Asia, which includes stops in Myanmar and Cambodia as part of a broader effort to expand the U.S. economic and military presence in a region long dominated by China.
So far, the United States has thrown its weight behind Israel, and Obama has urged Egypt and Turkey to intervene on Israel's behalf.
Obama said he has told Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, and Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that "those who champion the cause of the Palestinians should recognize that if we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, then the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future."
– The Associated Press
The bloodshed was likely to raise pressure on Israel to end the fighting, even as it pledged to intensify the offensive by striking the homes of wanted militants. High numbers of civilian casualties in an offensive four years ago led to fierce criticism and condemnation of Israel.
In all, 73 Palestinians, including 37 civilians, have been killed in the five-day onslaught. Three Israeli civilians have also died from Palestinian rocket fire.
President Obama said he was in touch with players across the region in hopes of halting the fighting, while also warning of the risks of Israel expanding its air assault into a ground war.
"We're going to have to see what kind of progress we can make in the next 24, 36, 48 hours," Obama said during a visit in Thailand.
NO SIGNS OF LETUP
On the ground, there were no signs of any letup in the fighting as Israel announced it was widening the offensive to target the military commanders of the ruling Hamas group.
The Israeli military carried out dozens of airstrikes throughout the day, and naval forces bombarded targets along Gaza's Mediterranean coast. Many of the attacks focused on homes where militant leaders or weapons were believed to be hidden.
Palestinian militants continued to barrage Israel with rockets, firing more than 100 Sunday, and setting off air raid sirens across the southern part of the country. Some 40 rockets were intercepted by Israel's U.S.-financed "Iron Dome" rocket-defense system, including two that targeted the metropolis of Tel Aviv. At least 10 Israelis were wounded by shrapnel.
Israel's decision to step up its attacks in Gaza marked a new and risky phase of the operation, given the likelihood of civilian casualties in the densely populated territory of 1.6 million Palestinians. Israel launched the offensive Wednesday in what it said was an effort to end months of intensifying rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
In the day's deadliest violence, the Israeli navy fired at a home where it said a top wanted militant was hiding. The missile struck the home of the Daloo family in Gaza City, reducing the structure to rubble.
HAMAS COMMANDERS' HOMES HIT
Frantic rescuers, bolstered by bulldozers, pulled the bodies of children from the ruins of the house, including a toddler and a 5-year-old, as survivors and bystanders screamed in grief. Later, the bodies of the children were laid out in the morgue of Gaza City's Shifa Hospital.
Among the 11 dead were four small children and five women, including an 81-year-old, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said.
More than a dozen homes of Hamas commanders or families linked to Hamas were struck Sunday. Though most were empty -- their inhabitants having fled to shelter -- at least three had families in them. Al-Kidra said 20 of 27 people killed Sunday were civilians, mostly women and children.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said that "the Israeli people will pay the price" for the killing of civilians.
Israel sought to place the blame on militants, saying they were intentionally operating in places inhabited by civilians. The military has released videos and images of what it says are militants firing rockets from mosques, schools and public buildings.
"Hamas is using the Gaza population as human shields," said Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the chief Israeli spokesman. "They are exploiting crowded residential urban areas."
He acknowledged, however, that it was not clear whether the militant targeted in Sunday's attack was killed, despite earlier claims of success. "I still don't know what became of him," Mordechai told Channel 10 TV.
The prospect of mounting civilian casualties could quickly change the momentum of Israel's operation. Israel launched the offensive Wednesday with a lightning airstrike that killed Hamas' military chief. Since then, it has carried out a blistering campaign of more than 1,200 airstrikes, targeting suspected rocket storage and launching sites.
Israel also struck two high-rise buildings housing media outlets, damaging the top-floor offices of the Hamas TV station, Al Aqsa, and a Lebanese-based broadcaster, Al Quds TV, seen as sympathetic to the Islamists. Six Palestinian journalists were wounded, including one who lost a leg, the Gaza press association said.
Foreign broadcasters, including British, German and Italian TV outlets, also had offices in the buildings.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said the strikes targeted Hamas communications equipment on the rooftops. She accused the group of using journalists for cover.
GROUND OPERATION NEXT?
Israeli officials expressed readiness to take the offensive even further with a ground invasion of Gaza. Israel has mobilized thousands of forces and columns of armored vehicles along the border ahead of a possible incursion.
"The Israeli military is prepared to significantly expand the operation," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.
A ground operation would carry grave risks, given the likelihood of heavy casualties on both sides. The Israeli offensive into Gaza four years ago left hundreds of civilians dead, drawing fierce international condemnation and war crimes accusations.
Israel says its intelligence and technology have been perfected since then to minimize civilian casualties. But Gaza's crowded urban landscape makes it all but impossible to avoid them altogether, as Sunday's attack in Gaza City illustrated.
"In this case, you can't avoid collateral damage if they position the rockets in densely populated areas, in mosques, school yards," Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon said. "We shouldn't be blamed for the outcome."