Obama to Israel: Immediate cease-fire in Gaza ‘imperative’

Palestinians inspect the rubble of a destroyed house following an Israeli strike killing Christian woman Jalila Ayyad, 70, in Gaza City on Sunday, July 27, 2014.
Palestinians inspect the rubble of a destroyed house following an Israeli strike killing Christian woman Jalila Ayyad, 70, in Gaza City on Sunday, July 27, 2014. AP

As attempts to extend a pause in fighting in the Gaza Strip collapsed on Sunday, President Barack Obama pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to an immediate ceasefire, calling it a “strategic imperative,” the White House said.

The intervention by Obama came after the United Nations failed to get Israel and Hamas to extend a “humanitarian pause” in combat, and Israeli forces resumed their bombardments in response to renewed rocket and mortar fire from Gaza.

In a phone call with Netanyahu, Obama “made clear the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire that ends hostilities now and leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities based on the November 2012 ceasefire agreement,” according to a White House statement.

The 2012 agreement ended a previous round of conflict between Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas.

Israel had declared a 24-hour suspension of its strikes at midnight Saturday, but said it resumed attacks because of violations by Hamas. The Islamist group declared its own 24-hour pause at 2 p.m. local time on Sunday, citing the hardships of Palestinian civilians and the approaching Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, but Israel rejected it, as militant rocket fire and Israeli shelling continued.

The renewed suspension of hostilities between Israel and Hamas had been requested by Robert Serry, the UN’s envoy in the Middle East. The dueling pause declarations and accompanying fighting reflected a test of wills between Israel and Hamas over who would dictate the terms of another lull, after both sides held fire during an agreed pause on Saturday.

Diplomatic contacts to arrange a broader seven-day cease-fire leading to negotiations on a durable truce appeared to be mired in disagreements over the terms, amid signs of dissatisfaction in Israel over the mediation efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry.

Israeli officials said Kerry's most recent ceasefire proposal, rejected by Israel, tilted toward Hamas and failed to take into account Israeli demands to demilitarize the Gaza Strip by ridding it of Hamas rockets and attack tunnels.

The diplomatic deadlock has led to the prolongation of fighting that has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 6,000, according to Gaza health officials. The United Nations says that three-quarters of the dead in Gaza are civilians, including more than 200 children. Some 200,000 Palestinians have been displaced by the fighting, and most are sheltering in UN schools.

Two Israeli civilians and a Thai laborer have been killed in rocket strikes on Israel, and 43 Israeli soldiers have been killed in ground combat.

The absence of a trusted mediator has hobbled diplomatic efforts to halt the Israeli offensive, which began July 8 with bombardments from land, sea and air, followed 10 days later by a ground push into Gaza.

The diplomacy has also been complicated by regional tensions between Egypt and the Palestinian Authority on the one side, and Hamas and its allies, Turkey and Qatar, on the other. Hamas rejected an initial cease-fire proposal put forward by Egypt, reflecting its distrust of of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is hostile to the Islamist group and its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Kerry’s attempts to broker a deal have foundered over Israeli dissatisfaction with the terms of his latest proposal for a seven-day cease-fire. Israel’s security cabinet unanimously rejected the plan on Friday, which officials described as heavily weighted in favor of Hamas demands, without taking adequate account of Israeli security concerns.

A leaked text of the draft proposal was published Sunday by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The plan calls for a seven-day “humanitarian ceasefire” followed by negotiations in Cairo within 48 hours to reach “a sustainable cease-fire and enduring solution to the crisis in Gaza.”

Topics to be discussed would include opening Gaza border crossings kept shut by Egypt and Israel for the passage of people and goods, transferring funds for salaries of Hamas government employees who have gone unpaid since the formation in June of a Palestinian unity government with the mainstream Fatah faction, and “all security issues.”

Implementation of the cease-fire would be supported internationally, including by Turkey and Qatar, which would join a “major humanitarian assistance initiative” for Gaza. The United States has used Turkey and Qatar as intermediaries with Hamas because it does not talk to the group, which it considers a terrorist organization.

Israeli officials said the plan failed to spell out Israel’s demand for “demilitarization” of the Gaza Strip, ridding it of Hamas’s rocket arsenal and network of tunnels, some of which have been dug toward Israel to carry out cross-border attacks.

Destruction of the tunnels has been a main focus of Israel’s ground operations in Gaza. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a member of the Israeli security cabinet, said Kerry’s plan promoted Hamas and its allies, Qatar and Turkey, at the expense of “pragmatic” regional players like Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

The cease-fire proposal contained elements that “strengthen the extremist axis in the region,” Livni told Israel Radio.

“There are identical interests and understanding between the pragmatic, moderate elements in the region _ Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and other Arab states _who don’t want to see the extremists making gains and profiting from their aggression and terrorism,” she said. “We’re all on the same side, and our decisions will be made accordingly.”

Interviewed on the NBC program “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Netanyahu said that the Egyptian cease-fire proposal initially turned down by Hamas was the “only game in town.”

In a lengthy interview last week with the BBC, Khaled Mashal, the Qatar-based political leader of Hamas, spelled out the group’s main demand, to lift border closures on the Gaza Strip that have created a stranglehold on the local economy.

“Gaza is part of the Palestinian land,” he said. “We have 1.8 million people. They need to live without a blockade. We want an airport and a port. We want to open up to the world. We don’t want to be controlled by a group of crossings that make Gaza the biggest prison in history.”

In other developments Sunday, the Israeli army published the results of its investigation into an incident last Thursday in which 16 Palestinians were reported killed in an apparent strike on a UN school in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, where people who had fled their homes were taking shelter.

The inquiry found that during exchanges of fire with militants, who launched anti-tank missiles at troops from areas near the school, Israeli forces responded with mortar fire. An errant shell hit the school courtyard, but it was empty at the time. The army circulated video footage taken from a drone showing a shell impact in an empty yard of a compound said to be the school.

"It is extremely unlikely that anybody was killed as a result of this mortar," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman.

Lerner said that the casualties may have been brought to the school compound after they were either caught in crossfire nearby or hit by rockets and mortar rounds launched towards Israel that the army identified as falling short. The army findings contradict accounts by witnesses and people wounded in the incident, who said that shells had landed in the school courtyard as people were gathered there for possible evacuation.

Images from the scene showed a least one crater in the courtyard and blood on the ground and on desks.

In Khan Younis in the central Gaza Strip on Sunday, an angry crowd attacked the local Red Cross office, protesting what participants called a lack of effective action by the relief organization. Many people in the mob had lost relatives in Israeli bombardments, witnesses said. A Red Cross spokeswoman said there were no injuries.

Lesley Clark contributed.