GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Efforts to end a week-old convulsion of Israeli-Palestinian violence drew in the world’s top diplomats on Tuesday, with President Barack Obama dispatching his secretary of state to the region on an emergency mission and the U.N. chief appealing from Cairo for an immediate cease-fire.
Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers have staked out tough, hard-to-bridge positions, and the gaps keep alive the threat of an Israeli ground invasion. On Tuesday, grieving Gazans were burying militants and civilians killed in ongoing Israeli airstrikes, and barrages of rockets from Gaza sent terrified Israelis scurrying to take cover.
From Egypt, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he came to the region because of the “alarming situation.”
“This must stop, immediate steps are needed to avoid further escalation, including a ground operation,” Ban said. “Both sides must hold fire immediately … Further escalation of the situation could put the entire region at risk.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton departed for the Mideast on Tuesday from Cambodia, where she had accompanied Obama on a visit. Clinton is to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and Egyptian leaders in Cairo, according to U.S. and Palestinian officials.
The U.S. considers Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide and other attacks, to be a terror group and does not meet with its officials. Washington blames Hamas rocket fire for the latest eruption of violence and says Israel has the right to defend itself. At the same time, it has cautioned that a ground invasion could send casualties spiraling.
By Tuesday, 115 Palestinians, including 54 civilians, have been killed since Israel mounted an air onslaught that has so far included nearly 1,500 strikes. Some 840 people have been wounded, including 225 children, Gaza health officials said.
Three Israeli civilians have also been killed and dozens wounded since the fighting began last week, the numbers possibly kept down by a rocket-defense system Israel developed with U.S. funding. More than 1,000 rockets have been fired at Israel this week, the military said.
Netanyahu said Tuesday that Israel wouldn’t balk at a broader military operation.
“I prefer a diplomatic solution,” Netanyahu said in a statement after meeting with Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who is also in the region trying to advance peace efforts. “But if the fire continues, we will be forced to take broader measures and will not hesitate to do so.”
Successive Israeli governments have struggled to come up with an effective policy toward Hamas.
Neither Israel’s economic blockade of the territory of 1.6 million people nor bruising military strikes have cowed Gaza’s Islamists, weakened their grip on the coastal strip or fire rockets at the Jewish state.
An Israeli ground invasion would risk Israeli troop losses, and could send the number of Palestinian civilian casualties ballooning — a toll Israel could be reluctant to risk just four years after its last invasion drew allegations of war crimes.
Still, with Israeli elections just two months away, polls show Israeli public sentiment has lined up staunchly behind the Netanyahu government’s offensive.
Turkey’s foreign minister and a delegation of Arab League foreign ministers headed to Gaza on Tuesday on a separate truce mission. Before setting off, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signaled Turkey was in contact with Israel bout a truce — an important development given the two countries’ chilly ties.
“We would be involved in all kinds of efforts if it amounted to saving the life of a single brother from Gaza,” Davutoglu said. “We are determined to keep all direct or indirect channels (of dialogue) open.”
Turkey’s once-close ties with Israel frayed badly over the high civilian toll during Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza.
With tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers dispatched to the Gaza border, awaiting a possible order to invade, the truce missions were all the more urgent.
Egypt, the traditional mediator between Israel and the Arab world, has been at the center of recent diplomatic efforts.
Israel demands an end to rocket fire from Gaza and a halt to weapons smuggling into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt. It also wants international guarantees that Hamas will not rearm or use Egypt’s Sinai region, which abuts both Gaza and southern Israel, to attack Israelis.
Hamas wants Israel to halt all attacks on Gaza and lift tight restrictions on trade and movement to and from the territory imposed after Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007. Israel has rejected such demands in the past.
Resurgent rocket fire set off the Israeli offensive, launched with the assassination of the Hamas military chief and followed by hundreds of airstrikes on militant rocket launchers and weapons stores.
The onslaught turned deadlier over the weekend, as airstrikes began targeting the homes of suspected Hamas activists, leading to a spike in civilian casualties. Israel sent warnings in some cases, witnesses said, but in other instances missiles hit suddenly, burying residents under the rubble of their homes.
Hamas is deeply rooted in densely populated Gaza, and the movement’s activists live in the midst of ordinary Gazans. Israel says militants are using civilians as human shields, both for their own safety and to launch rocket strikes from residential neighborhoods.
In one case, a senior member of the military wing of Islamic Jihad rented a small apartment in a 15-story high-rise of offices and news outlets. The militant, Ramez Harb, was killed Monday in a rocket strike that damaged the building.
One journalist said he and others were furious that Harb had apparently used their building as a hideout, putting others at risk. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared repercussions from Gaza militants.
Early Tuesday, Israeli aircraft targeted another Hamas symbol of power, the headquarters of a bank senior Hamas officials set up to sidestep international sanctions on the militant group’s rule. After Hamas overran Gaza, foreign lenders stopped doing business with its militant-led government, afraid of running afoul of international terror financing laws.
The inside of the bank was destroyed and a building supply business in the basement was damaged.
“I’m not involved in politics,” said the business owner, Suleiman Tawil. “I’m a businessman. But the more the Israelis pressure us, the more we will support Hamas.”
Israel and Gaza’s militants have a long history of fighting, but the dynamics have changed radically since they last warred four years ago. Though their hardware is no match for the Israeli military, militants have upgraded their capabilities with weapons smuggled in from Iran and Libya, Israeli officials claim.
Only a few years ago, tens of thousands of Israelis were within rocket range. Today those numbers have swollen to 3.5 million, as the militants’ improved weapons reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time this past week.
Hamas, a branch of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, is also negotiating from a stronger position than four years ago. At that time, Hamas was internationally isolated; now, the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Egypt and Tunisia, and Hamas is also getting political support from Qatar and Turkey.
At home, too, the military offensive has shored up Hamas at a time when it was riven by internal divisions over its direction and the new Egyptian government’s refusal to lift the blockade it imposed along with Israel after Hamas seized the territory.
This newfound backing contrasts radically with the loss of stature the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has endured as Palestinians lose faith in his ability to bring them a state through negotiations with Israel.