Israel mulls truce offer
Posted: Tuesday, December 30, 2008 7:23 pm
By IBRAHIM BARZAK
Associated Press Writers
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel is considering suspending its Gaza offensive to give Hamas militants an opening to halt rocket fire on Israel, but the threat of a ground offensive remains if the cease-fire does not hold, an Israeli defense official said today.
Israel’s defense minister is to raise the proposal during a meeting of Israel’s security Cabinet on Wednesday, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. Israel TV’s Channel 10 also reported such a proposal.
At the same time, the security Cabinet will also be asked to consider various plans for a ground invasion, the defense official said. The public rhetoric from Israeli officials has indicated they expect the operation to continue.
Earlier today, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the current, aerial phase of the operation was just “the first of several” that have been approved, an Olmert spokesman said.
Palestinian militants, meanwhile, kept up their rocket assaults on Israeli border communities, despite relentless Israeli air attacks against Gaza’s Hamas rulers and unwelcome word from Egypt that it would not bail them out.
Israeli warplanes smashed a Hamas government complex, the largest one hit so far, dumping the biggest single load of bombs on the buildings, which had been evacuated since the bombardment began. Israel also hit security installations and the home of a top militant commander.
The question hanging over the Israeli operation is how it can halt rocket fire. Israel has never found a military solution to the barrage of missiles militants have fired into southern Israel.
Beyond delivering Hamas a deep blow and protecting border communities, the assault’s broader objectives remained cloudy. Israeli President Shimon Peres acknowledged the challenge, saying the operation was unavoidable but more difficult than many people anticipated.
“War against terrorists is harder in some aspects than fighting armies,” Peres said.
More than 370 Palestinians have been killed since the Israeli air onslaught against Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers began Saturday, shortly after a rocky, six-month truce expired. Most were members of Hamas security forces but the number included at least 64 civilians, according to U.N. figures. Among those killed were two sisters, aged 4 and 11, who perished in an airstrike on a rocket squad in northern Gaza today.
Israeli warplanes smashed a Hamas government complex, security installations and the home of a top militant commander. During brief lulls between airstrikes, Gazans tentatively ventured into the streets to buy goods and collect belongings from homes they had abandoned after Israel’s aerial onslaught began Saturday.
Rasha Khaldeh, 22, from the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah, said she dared go no further than down the block to look for food.
“We just don’t know what they are going to shell next. It’s not safe,” Khaldeh said.
The campaign has brought a new reality to southern Israel, too, where one-tenth of the country’s population of 7 million has suddenly found itself within rocket range. Militants have pressed on with their rocket and mortar assaults, killing three Israeli civilians and a soldier and bringing a widening circle of targets into their sights with an arsenal of more powerful weapons.
The military estimated that close to 700,000 Israelis are now within rocket range, with the battles shifting closer to Israel’s heartland. Of the four Israelis killed since the operation began Saturday, all but one were in areas that had not suffered fatalities before. Today, a Bedouin Arab town became one of the new targets.
“It’s very scary,” said Yaacov Pardida, a 55-year-old resident of Ashdod, southern Israel’s largest city, which was hit Monday. “I never imagined that this could happen, that they could reach us here.”
By mid-afternoon, gunmen had launched about a dozen rockets and mortars, down from 80 a day earlier, the Israeli military said. But the number of firings have fluctuated sharply throughout the day, and that number could dramatically rise by day’s end.
In the 72 hours since the offensive began, militants have fired off more than 250 rockets and mortars all told, they added.
“Zionists, wait for more from the resistance,” Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan wrote in a text message to reporters, referring to militants’ armed struggle against Israel.
The offensive comes on top of an Israeli blockade of Gaza that has largely kept all but essential goods from entering the coastal territory since Hamas violently seized control June 2007 from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
At the United Nations on Monday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded an immediate cease-fire and urged Mideast and world leaders to do more to help end the Israeli-Hamas conflict and promote political dialogue.
He also urged urged Arab foreign ministers, who are holding an emergency meeting in Cairo on Wednesday, “to act swiftly and decisively to bring an early end to this impasse.”
Egypt, which has been blockading Gaza from its southern end, has come under pressure from the rest of the Arab world to reopen its border with the territory because of the Israeli campaign. Egypt has pried open the border to let in some of Gaza’s wounded and to allow some humanitarian supplies to enter the territory. But it quickly sealed the border when Gazans tried to push through forcefully.
In a televised speech today, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded to critics, including the leader of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, who have accused him of collaborating with Israel.
“We tell anybody who seeks political profits on the account of the Palestinian people: The Palestinian blood is not cheap,” he said, describing such comments as “exploiting the blood of the Palestinians.”
Mubarak said his country would not throw open the border crossing unless Abbas regains control of the border post. Mubarak has been rattled by the presence of a neighboring Islamic ministate in Gaza, fearing it would fuel more Islamic dissidence in Egypt.
Israel’s air force initially hammered security facilities, then broadened to weapons-making and storage facilities, the homes of militant field operatives, and government buildings that are the symbols of Hamas’ power.
The initial wave of airstrikes took Gaza by surprise, targeting militants and Hamas security forces at key installations, often located in the midst of tiny Gaza’s densely populated towns and cities.
But the government buildings targeted later were empty, as Gazans became fearful of venturing out into the streets. For Ziad Koraz, whose nearby home was damaged in the attack on the government compound ——————, that violence gratuitously put Gaza civilians at risk.
“More than 17 missiles were directed at an empty government compound, without regard for civilians who lived nearby,” Koraz said. “If someone committed a crime, they should go after him, not after an entire nation.”
Israel has allowed a trickle of aid through its cargo crossings with Gaza despite the military campaign, agreeing to allow 100 trucks in on ——————, defense officials said. Jordan, the Red Cross and the World Health Organization were also preparing to send medical supplies.
Israel’s navy on —————— turned back a boat of pro-Palestinian protesters who had hoped to enter Gaza to demonstrate against the Israeli blockade.
The Israeli side of the border area was declared a closed military zone on Monday, obscuring operations in the area. But with thousands of ground troops, backed by tanks and artillery, massed on the border, and the air force knocking off target after target, the big question looming over the operation was whether it would expand to include a land invasion.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the operation would “expand as needed … to restore tranquility to (Israel’s) south and deliver a blow to Hamas so the rocket fire and other operations against the citizens and soldiers of Israel stop.”
During the six-month truce that expired Dec. 19, gunmen fired 360 rockets and mortars, the vast majority in the agreement’s waning weeks, the military said. In the year before it took hold, more than 4,300 projectiles were fired, it added.
Over the years, militants have improved the aim and range of the rockets. On Monday, a missile crashed into a bus stop in Ashdod, a city of 200,000 that is 23 miles (37 kilometers) from Gaza and only 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Israel’s Tel Aviv heartland.
Amy Teibel reported from Jerusalem.
Published in The Messenger 12.30.08