International pressure mounted on Israel to end its three-week offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, with President Barack Obama and the United Nations Security Council demanding an immediate truce.
Israel reduced the scope of its military offensive today, saying it wouldn’t initiate strikes, though it responded to rocket and mortar fire that persisted after a Hamas truce offer yesterday. Military spokesman Brigadier-General Moti Almoz said the army would continue to destroy tunnels militants dug to infiltrate Israel.
The conflict is the third major military showdown between the sides in less than six years. It has already claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Palestinians, 45 Israelis and a Thai worker in Israel. Previous truce deals have failed to resolve underlying issues including the proliferation of arms in Gaza and Hamas’s demand to end Israel’s economic blockade of the Palestinian territory, initiated in 2006 and joined by Egypt.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scoffed at Hamas’s truce offer in interviews with U.S. television shows yesterday, noting that the militant group rejected proposed extensions of a UN-sponsored truce a day earlier and continued to bombard Israel with rockets.
Immediate and Unconditional
Obama called Netanyahu afterward to “make clear the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian cease-fire that ends hostilities now and leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities,” the White House said in a statement. Israel and Hamas rejected a truce proposal put forward over the weekend by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Added pressure came today from the UN Security Council, which in an emergency session called for an “immediate and unconditional” truce to allow for the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian assistance to Gaza, according to a statement on its website. Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, told Israel Radio the council sees that immediate halt to attacks “as a bridge to a broader cease-fire.”
The calls for a break in hostilities came as Gaza’s 1.8 million people began observing Eid al-Fitr, the three-day holiday marking the end of the Muslim fast month of Ramadan. In more peaceful times, streets would be bustling and the atmosphere would be festive, with adults and children dressed in holiday finery and visiting relatives. Parks and beaches would be packed.
Today, streets were almost empty in Gaza City, the territory’s biggest urban area, as people visited fresh graves, bouquets of flowers in hand, paid hospital calls on family and friends wounded in the fighting, and surveyed the damage done by the Israeli strikes. The Eid is usually the best season for business in Gaza, yet this year, many shops were closed.
“This isn’t Eid, it’s the worst Eid I’ve seen in all my life,” said Mohamed al-Ejla, a 45-year-old father of seven. “I still remember the Eid when I was young, it was full of happiness and we enjoyed it. But this Eid is full of blood, destruction, pain, grief and sadness.”
Clothes shop owner Hamada Salhi, 26, said he had been counting on the holiday season to help repay bank debts.
“Since the beginning of Ramadan and the start of Eid, I haven’t opened my shop, except for a few hours during humanitarian cease-fires, when I sold some clothes that brought in cash to buy food for my children,” he said. “How can people celebrate, when their neighbors and friends and relatives have mourning tents outside their homes?”
Two people, including a 5-year-old boy, were killed by Israeli tank shells today, bringing the death toll since fighting escalated on July 8 to 1,044, according to Ashraf al- Qedra, spokesman for the Health Ministry in Gaza.
In Israel, support for the military offensive is strong, after years of increasingly menacing rocket fire and the discovery of dozens of infiltration tunnels. A poll commissioned by Israel’s Channel 10 television showed 87 percent backing for the offensive, with 69 percent saying it should continue until Hamas is toppled, a goal the government hasn’t declared. Seven percent favored a cease-fire. The report didn’t give the size of the polling sample or margin of error.
Pollster Mina Zemach said on Channel 2 television that she hasn’t seen such backing for the government in surveys since the beginning of the 1982 war in Lebanon.
While the military operation has barely affected Israel’s financial markets, the only analyst to predict Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug’s first interest-rate cut in September says the conflict is tipping her toward another one today.
“You can’t completely ignore the effect of the security incidents,” Rafael Gozlan, chief economist at Israel Brokerage & Investments Ltd. in Tel Aviv, said by phone last week. While 18 of 21 economists surveyed by Bloomberg forecast the rate will be held at 0.75 percent, Gozlan said he expects it to be pared to 0.5 percent.
Israel says its campaign is intended to quell the rocket fire and destroy the infiltration tunnels, which militants used during the fighting. Israel, the U.S. and the European Union label Hamas a terrorist group. Netanyahu says Gaza militants must be disarmed if a sustainable peace is to be achieved.
“We have to demilitarize it from the weapons that Hamas has put in there -- missiles, rockets, terror tunnels,” he said yesterday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “We can’t allow them to restock this arsenal or we’ll be stuck in another five, six months with the same problem.” Militants have fired more than 2,500 rockets at Israel during the current fighting, the military says.
Hamas’s exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, said it is “high time to lift the siege on Gaza,” a reference to the blockade. “We are not fanatics,” he said in an interview taped July 26 that aired yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We fight the occupiers.”
Asked if he would recognize Israel if the occupation and blockade were to end, he replied, “When we have a Palestinian state, then the Palestinian state will decide on its policies.”
The Israeli army said yesterday it wasn’t to blame for the deaths of 16 Palestinians at a UN-run school July 24 in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, citing its investigation. Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said video footage showed one errant Israeli mortar shell hit the school’s yard at a point where there were no people. He suggested in a phone briefing that the victims may have been killed in crossfire between Israel and Palestinian militants and moved into the yard.
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