Israel launches Gaza ground offensive after truce efforts fail
GAZA CITY // Israel launched a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip on Thursday night after 10 days of airstrikes and shelling to stop rockets being fired from the Palestinian territory.
An army spokesman said the operation was not aimed at toppling the Islamist group Hamas, which runs Gaza.
A statement issued by the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he had ordered the army to attack “terrorist infiltration tunnels”, signalling that the operation would be limited in scope.
Hamas said the ground incursion would have “dreadful consequences”.
“It does not scare the Hamas leaders or the Palestinian people,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. “We warn Netanyahu of the dreadful consequences of such a foolish act.”
There were reports of a ceasefire agreement earlier in the day following a brief humanitarian truce and indications of increased diplomatic efforts to end fighting that has killed more than 230 Palestinians, but these were denied by Hamas.
Israel forces and militants in the Gaza Strip resumed exchanges of rockets and airstrikes after the end of the five-hour ceasefire, requested by the UN, to allow humanitarian aid into the besieged Palestinian territory.
The brief lull in fighting yesterday was preceded by several attacks, including an attempt by Hamas militants to enter Israel by tunnel.
The Israeli army said 13 Hamas militants were killed by an airstrike after they entered an area near a kibbutz close the Palestinian territory.
Three children from the same family were killed in an Israeli airstrike that came just hours after the ceasefire ended.
Another strike shortly afterwards in the southern city of Khan Yunis killed Rahaf Al Jubur, 4, and Hamza Al Abadleh, 29.
The brief lull coincided with an apparent intensification of efforts to end the fighting, which has devastated Gaza and triggered criticism of Israel by human rights group over the large number of civilians killed by its attacks.
A Hamas spokesperson, Sami Abu Zuhri, denied reports that Israel and Hamas had agreed to a truce that would come into effect at 6am on Friday.
“The news about a ceasefire is incorrect. There are continuing efforts but no agreement until now.”
Ihab Ghussein, another Hamas spokesman, said any deal would have to “include what the Palestinians require and want”.
Citing a source in Gaza, the US-based Electronic Intifada website reported on Friday that Hamas had laid down five conditions in ceasefire talks led by Egypt.
The demands include the opening Israeli and Egyptian crossings into the Gaza Strip, which faces an Egyptian-backed Israeli siege, as well as maritime corridor through the Israeli navy’s coastal blockade.
As well granting Palestinians access to Jerusalem to pray at Al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, the list also demands that Israel release prisoners who were recently rearrested after being freed three years ago in exchange for an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas.
Israel imposed a siege on Gaza after Hamas seized it from the rival Fatah faction during a brief civil war in 2007. It is unclear whether Israel would accept a loosening of its siege without a guarantees, possibly internationally enforced, that Hamas and other militant factions stop rocket fire.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, was in Cairo on Thursday to meet his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, to discuss the ceasefire.
Under Mr El Sisi, Egypt has destroyed the smuggling tunnels linking the country with Gaza, a move that crippled the Palestinian territory’s already frail economy.
The move deprived Gazans of cheap goods as well as weapons for militant factions, which Israel’s military says have fired 1,350 rockets since fighting broke out on July 8.
An adviser to a senior official in the Fatah faction, which Mr Abbas also heads, said the Palestinian president discussed the truce negotiations with the deputy head of Hamas, Mousa Abu Marzook, who is based Egyptian capital.
The adviser declined to give details but called the meeting “significant”.
“I don’t think the president would have met with him if there was not something important.”
Egypt made an unsuccessful attempt to usher in a truce on Tuesday, but Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza said Cairo did not consult them about the deal.
Israel accepted that ceasefire but then resumed its strikes because militants in the Gaza Strip continued firing rockets.
Israel has reported one fatality, a civilian, during 10 days of conflict, while health officials and human rights groups in Gaza say that about 80 per cent of the at least 237 Palestinians killed so far have been civilians.
Israel’s attacks on Gaza appeared to be “deliberately disproportionate” and amounted to “collective punishment”, Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said on Thursday.
“I really would now call on the Israel government to stop. They’ve proved their point,” Mr Clegg said on Britain’s LBC radio station.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA said on Thursday it was investigating after finding 20 rockets hidden in one of its vacant schools in the Gaza Strip.
It condemned the incident as a “flagrant violation” of international law and said the rockets had been removed and the “relative parties” informed.
“Yesterday, in the course of the regular inspection of its premises, UNRWA discovered approximately 20 rockets hidden in a vacant school in the Gaza Strip,” the agency said in a statement.
* Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
Updated: July 17, 2014 04:00 AM