With diplomats from Middle Eastern states and several outside powers scrambling to stem the spiraling Israeli-Palestinian crisis on Monday, President Obama called for a cease-fire and cited “serious concerns” about the rising toll of dead on both sides.
The Obama administration also dispatched to the region Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who arrived in Egypt late Monday to try to mediate calm between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
But the violence continued to surge Monday night, with the top Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip signaling that the Islamist group, whose charter calls killing every Jew a religious duty, will not agree to an unconditional cease-fire with Israel. Meanwhile, Israel’s defense minister pledged Monday to keep fighting “as long as necessary.”
With those assertions casting doubt over the highest-level attempt at mediation between the two sides since Israel began striking into the Gaza Strip two weeks ago, Israeli officials also said they were unsurprised by the level of organized military resistance that their forces have faced during recent days.
While the overall Israeli assault on Gaza has killed more than 500 Palestinians during the past two weeks, at least 25 Israeli soldiers have been killed in fierce urban combat against Hamas since the opening of an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza late last week.
“We’re not surprised in any way or form,” said Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner. “We know that Hamas has been training with Iranian help, and its fighters have been attending Iranian schools.”
“They are well trained, well supplied and disciplined,” Mr. Lerner told The Washington Times. “We knew all along.”
But the sudden surge in Israeli casualties — the highest number of soldiers killed since Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war — raised questions Monday over whether the nation’s public will remain unified behind the current campaign against Hamas.
Haaretz, a leading left-leaning Israeli newspaper, ran a sharply worded editorial Monday that warned against mission creep and the “wholesale killing” of Palestinian civilians and asserted that “there can be no victory” by continuing the military assault on Gaza.
“Israel believes it enjoys a line of credit from the Arab countries and the international community that will allow it to continue to fight,” the editorial stated. “But the many horrific photos from Gaza and the scope of the humanitarian disaster there is liable to make that line of credit very short-term.”
Nevertheless, some regional analysts argued Monday that regardless of the mounting casualties on both sides, the Israeli public’s appetite for the war remains strong because of widespread anger triggered by weeks of Hamas rocket fire into the Jewish state.
“I don’t believe that the rising death toll among Israeli Defense Forces soldiers is going to weaken support among the Israeli public for this war,” said Neri Zilber, a scholar focused on Israel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And I don’t see cleavages emerging between different camps in the Israeli public.”
“At least not yet,” said Mr. Zilber, “and that’s simply because most Israelis believe, number one, that this war was very much brought upon them by Hamas — that it was Hamas’ choice — and, number two, you can’t, as a country, sit idly by and watch rockets falling on your own peoples’ homes.”
The Israeli outrage is only being matched on the Palestinian side, with several Arab news organizations focusing Monday on the horrific impact that the Israeli incursion into Gaza has had on innocent Palestinian women and children.
Asharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi-owned but independent newspaper based in London, reported Monday that 17 children, 14 women and four elderly people were among some 87 Gazans killed during fighting Sunday.
Gaza resident Atef Al-Mughni told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Israeli assault has been particularly intense in the Shejaia district of Gaza City.
“I would not be exaggerating when I say that more than 1,000 mortar shells slammed into the district in the course of just five hours,” he said. “But the shelling reached each square meter in the area until it was reduced to debris. Dozens of people were martyred in their houses, and others were martyred while trying to escape on Sunday morning.”
The reports of civilian casualties in Gaza, plus the rising Israeli death toll, led Mr. Obama to call for a cease-fire Monday, saying Israeli Defense Forces already had done “significant damage” to the terrorist organization in heavy fighting.
“We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian and civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives,” Mr. Obama said. “That is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a cease-fire that ends that fighting and that can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel.”
Shortly after arriving in Cairo on Monday, Mr. Kerry said the U.S. will provide $47 million in humanitarian aid mainly to help Palestinian refugees spawned by the recent round of violence.
But Mr. Kerry stressed that Washington continues to stand with Israel and that ball is in Hamas’ court to end the violence. “Only Hamas is out there awaiting the decision, and we hope they will make the right decision,” he said.
The Palestinian civilian deaths, however, also coincide with ongoing resistance among Hamas leaders to the calls for a cease-fire by Washington and others.
Israel had initially accepted an Egyptian call for an unconditional cease-fire last week but resumed its military operations after Hamas pointedly rejected the proposal.
The top Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, has said the group will not halt its rocket fire into Israel without guarantees that Israeli and Egyptian leaders are committed to significantly easing a seven-year border blockade of Gaza.
The blockade was imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas took control in Gaza following the 2007 elections in the Palestinian Authority. Over the past year, Egypt has further tightened restrictions, driving Hamas into a deep financial crisis.
But neither Israel nor Egypt are likely to yield to Mr. Haniyeh’s demand — particularly because of uncertainty over whether the Hamas leader actually has the power to control the militants in Gaza.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood political party, which played a central role in brokering a 2012 cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, is no longer in power in Cairo.
Egypt’s current government, headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former commander of the Egyptian military, is considered to hold significantly less influence over Hamas than that levied two years ago by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The mistrust between Hamas leaders and the Sisi government was on full display last week when Cairo’s cease-fire plan was backed by the U.S. and Israel but swiftly rejected by Hamas.
During the days since, other regional powers have entered the fray — namely Turkey and Qatar, both of whom are considered to have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and, as a result, to be more likely to influence Hamas.
But with a round in Qatar having led nowhere over the weekend, most regional analysts believe the focus is now back on Egypt.
“There’s very much a three-way negotiation going on right now between Hamas, Israel and Egypt,” Mr. Zilber said Monday. “The rest is just pageantry.”
“It’s not a question of influence over Hamas,” he added. “It’s really a question of cutting a deal with Hamas, whether [or not] the Sisi government is inclined to cut the kind of deal that would open the Rafa border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.”
“So far, Egypt has said, ‘We’ll talk about that after you stop firing rockets.’”
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.
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