Israel Rejects Cease-Fire Proposal

Assault on Gaza Strip continues as rockets fall on southern Israel.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 1, 2009

JERUSALEM, Dec. 31 -- Israeli leaders rejected a proposal for a two-day cease-fire on Wednesday and vowed to continue attacks on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, including possibly sending in ground forces.

Israeli warplanes and ships pounded Hamas outposts and the network of tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border used by the group to smuggle weapons, the Israeli military said. The strikes rattled buildings in Gaza City. At least 390 Palestinians have been killed, including dozens of civilians, and 1,600 have been wounded since the Israeli airstrikes began Saturday.

A barrage of more than 20 rockets and mortar shells fired from Hamas-ruled Gaza hit southern Israel. Five rockets struck in and around the city of Beersheba, about 25 miles from Gaza, late Tuesday and Wednesday -- the farthest strikes by Hamas yet. No serious casualties were reported Wednesday from the rockets.

At a cabinet meeting, Israeli leaders decided they were not ready to halt the attacks. Israel will consider a cease-fire only when there is "a real, sustainable calm," said government spokesman Mark Regev.

"A cease-fire will give them time to rest, regroup and rearm," Regev said. "A temporary solution might sound nice, but it's a mirage. It will only blow up in our faces in a couple weeks or a month."

"We think inflicting serious blows on the Hamas military machine is a crucial ingredient in achieving that situation," Regev added. "It is possible we have to pursue military operations for a longer period before conditions are right for a sustainable calm."

In recent days, Israel has dispatched more troops and tanks to the border. It has also announced plans to call up more than 9,000 reservists to active duty. Israel, which is hoping to extract a ceasefire on its own terms, could be massing its ground forces as a pressure tactic.

A ground incursion is "an option," Regev said. "It has not yet been decided upon. But it is clearly an option we have." He stressed, however, that Israel, which pulled its forces from the Gaza Strip in 2005, has no intention of reoccupying the area.

Diaa Rashwan, an analyst on Islamist movements at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said that if the Israelis go back into the densely populated strip, they will play into Hamas's hands. Hamas "will gain the sympathy of the Arab world as well as bolster their image and strength," Rashwan said. "It will be a great day for Hamas. They will have the best of both worlds -- to be a victim and a resister at the same time."

On Wednesday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared in a televised speech that the Islamist movement would emerge victorious.

"We tell the Palestinian people in Gaza and everywhere that you will win, inevitably. Victory is near, God willing, and it is closer than people think," Haniyeh said. Hours earlier, an Israeli airstrike destroyed his office. Israel said the office was used for planning attacks against the Jewish state.

Human rights groups warned that ground combat could lead to more civilian deaths. "Israeli forces must bear in mind that there are no 'safe' places in Gaza for civilians to seek shelter," Amnesty International said in a statement Wednesday. "The Israeli army must always choose means and methods of attack that are least likely to harm civilians."

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