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Representatives of Israel and Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza, are in Cairo today trying to work out the details of a possible long-term cease-fire. But the prospects of a breakthrough looked low, with Palestinian and Israeli officials both denying a BBC report, citing an unnamed source, that there had been such a development.
Earlier today, a brief UN-requested cease-fire was violated by mortar fire from Gaza. The quick turn to violence generated concern that Israel could look to ground operations if a more lasting agreement wasn't reached soon.
More than 200 people – mostly civilians – have died in the past week and a half. All but one of the casualities have been Palestinian.
The cease-fire, which began at 10 a.m. local time (3 a.m. EST) and was set to run for five hours, was intended to allow Palestinians an opportunity to go to hospitals, stock up on food, or visit banks, which were to open for the first time in two weeks. Less than three hours passed before sirens sounded and mortars landed in southern Israel, according to Reuters.
In Gaza City, hundreds of Palestinian lined up outside banks to collect salaries paid directly into their accounts, while others went food shopping. Gaza roads almost deserted over days of conflict were filled again with traffic.
"We are here to get paid. Thank God for the calm and we hope it lasts," said Zakaria Ahmed, 35. "We hope Egypt brings a good truce, we hope the killing will stop and (Gaza's border) crossings will open."
There was also relief in Israel. In the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon, which has been under constant rocket fire, families strolled through the streets after remaining at home for the past week.
A cease-fire proposed by Egypt and Israel earlier this week wasn't acceptable to Hamas, which wasn't included in the discussion. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Israel delivered Hamas “a diplomatic blow” by agreeing to the Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire.
That gave Hamas an unhappy choice between a deal that met virtually none of its conditions, or an Israeli escalation that would be harder to paint as sheer aggression rather than a response to ongoing rocket fire from Gaza.
“If Hamas rejects the very public diplomatic offer here, then if the fighting renews, Israel can then pursue its military goals with a tremendous amount of international legitimacy behind it – something that was lacking prior to the outbreak of the hostilities,” said former Ambassador Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s envoy to Washington from 2009-13, on a call with foreign reporters.
After militants in Gaza fired more than 40 rockets into Israel [Tuesday], Israel renewed its airstrikes on the territory, effectively aborting the cease-fire efforts.
Hamas’s conditions for a cease-fire include Israel and Egypt ending border restrictions that impose economic hardship on Palestinians in Gaza and make it difficult for Hamas to pay government employees, Reuters reports. The group also demands an end to Israel's naval blockade of Gaza, and the release of Hamas members detained by Israel over the past month. Israel hasn't signaled any willingness to meet these demands.
A senior Israeli military official said Israel was increasingly looking toward a ground invasion of Gaza, according to The New York Times. Only “boots on the ground” could end rocket fire from Gaza, the official said.
“Every day that passes makes the possibility more evident,” the military official said of a ground campaign. The official, who has been briefing Israeli ministers responsible for strategic decisions and spoke on the condition of anonymity under military protocol, said that his assessment was based on “the signals I get” and that the likelihood of an invasion was “very high.”
“We can hurt them very hard from the air but not get rid of them,” he told a handful of international journalists in a briefing at the military’s Tel Aviv headquarters. An Israeli takeover of Gaza would not be “a huge challenge,” he said, estimating that it would take “a matter of days or weeks.” But he added that preventing a more dangerous deterioration in the territory would require a presence “of many months.”