News Column

Standoff Continues in Gaza Truce Talks

Nov 20, 2012

By Michele Chabin, Ruth Eglash, and Naser Najjar

Israel on Monday killed four top terrorists in an attack on a media center in a continuing operation to target Hamas leaders and weaponry as Gaza rocket attacks went into a second week.

Hamas leaders said Monday during cease-fire talks that they would not end the rocket attacks unless Israel ended a blockade of Gaza borders that it maintains to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

The standoff was being discussed in Cairo where diplomats from Egypt and Turkey were in talks with Hamas about a cease-fire. An Israeli official was in Cairo, but the Israeli government would not comment.

In Gaza City, health official Ashraf al-Kidra said 100 people had been killed in Israeli airstrikes that began Wednesday in response to the launching of nearly 200 rockets against Israeli towns. Half of the dead in Gaza were non-combatants and included many children, he said.

Israel has said that Hamas bears responsibility for the deaths of civilians because terrorists are using them as shields.

Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Qandil told Reuters that a cease-fire agreement may be signed soon. "I think we are close, but this kind of negotiation is very difficult, and it is hard to make predictions."

The leader of Hamas took a tough stance, rejecting Israel's demands that the militant group stop its rocket fire. Instead, Khaled Mashaal said Israel must meet Hamas' demands for a lifting of the blockade of Gaza.

"We don't accept Israeli conditions because it is the aggressor," he told reporters in Egypt. "We want a cease-fire along with meeting our demands."

An Israeli official said Israel hoped to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis as well and signaled Egypt was likely to play a key role in enforcing any truce.

"We prefer the diplomatic solution if it's possible. If we see it's not going to bear fruit, we can escalate," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomatic efforts underway.

If the rockets continue, a ground invasion could be launched, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Some analysts say such a course carries a risk for Israel.

"I think for Hamas the risk of a ground invasion is that they basically get dominated on the battlefield and that is likely what would happen," said Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. "But on the Israeli side there is some real risk, too. The longer (Netanyahu) stays in this war, the greater the possibility that something goes wrong."

One of the Israeli airstrikes Monday hit a Hamas television building that had been struck previously over the weekend, killing four members of Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that is backed by Iran, the Israeli Defense Forces announced.

The four targeted terrorists included Baha Abu el Ata, a Gaza brigade commander involved in firing rockets into southern Israel; Tyseer Abu Al Ata, a senior Islamic Jihad member; and Halil Bahatini, involved in the Islamic Jihad's long-range rocket launchings.

Islamic Jihad announced on a website that commander Ramez Harb was killed in the strike.

The IDF said the men were involved in getting into Gaza the long-range Fajr-5 rockets that are made in Iran and sneaked into Gaza through smuggling tunnels from Egypt. These rockets have a much wider range than other rockets of Hamas and can reach almost anywhere in Israel.

It is those missiles that Israel has been targeting and hoping to destroy, according to the IDF.

Israel has also been attacking homes of activists in Hamas, which has orchestrated the firing of more than 1,100 rockets into Israel, the IDF said. Israel's Iron Dome defensive missile system has shot down 320 of the rockets, the IDF said.

About 75 Hamas rockets were fired Monday, among them one that hit an empty school. Others hit a house and a yard.

In Gaza, some people were moving deeper into the territory to try to avoid Israeli airstrikes.

"But given that the whole of Gaza Strip is an area of just around (215 square miles) their attempts of moving away from the border does not make such a big difference in terms of safety," said Sukrit Kapoor, a lawyer with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza.

Power outages can last 10 hours a day.

"When the power cuts happen during the day, we can manage," said Soad Al Tartor, a mother of five. "But when it cuts out at night, the house is dark and the sounds of the explosions heightens the fear among us."

Many Gazans rely on generators for electricity, but gas stations have run dry.

"I spend half of my day searching for fuel," taxi driver Ahmed Abu Amra said.

In Ashkelon in southern Israel "Code Red" sirens sounded throughout the day in cities and towns.

Even though the Iron Dome defense system intercepted most of the projectiles, there were several direct hits on buildings and yards. A handful of people were injured and many were dealing with shock from the constant blasts, said Benny Vaknin, mayor of Ashkelon.

The mayor spoke while looking over damage to Henry Ronson High School in Ashkelon, where a Hamas-fired rocket had scored a direct hit, bursting through the cement roof of a school walkway. The rocket did not explode and the school was empty at the time.

"The difference between our operation and that of Hamas is that they aim to hit schools and areas crowded with civilians," Vaknin said.

Alerts and air raid sirens were heard throughout the day in Israel's south from Beer Sheva and Sderot all the way up to Ashdod and beyond. There were two rocket interceptions near Tel Aviv.

Any cease-fire deal would draw mixed reviews from the Israeli towns and villages that have been the target of Hamas rockets.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012

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