Israel Rejects Intensified Push for Cease-Fire

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 6 -- Israel brushed aside an intensified effort by European envoys on Monday to broker a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip even as casualties mounted and aid organizations warned of a growing humanitarian crisis.

Diplomatic attempts to arrange a truce between Israel and Hamas failed despite a flurry of meetings across the region and at the United Nations. Most of the pressure was exerted by European leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former British prime minister Tony Blair. But Israeli officials repeated their vows to keep fighting until they have crippled Hamas's ability to launch rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel.

"When Israel is targeted, Israel is going to retaliate," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters as she held talks with European diplomats in Jerusalem.

U.S. State Department officials said Monday they also were pushing for a cease-fire. But unlike European leaders, who have been critical of both sides, President Bush stood behind Israel and gave no sign he was unhappy with America's close ally.

"Instead of caring about the people of Gaza, Hamas decided to use Gaza to use rockets to kill innocent Israelis," Bush told reporters at the White House. "Israel's obviously decided to protect itself."

Bush said he agreed with Israel's position that a truce would be a waste of time unless Hamas is somehow prevented from resuming attacks. "I know people are saying, 'Let's have a cease-fire,' " Bush said. "And those are noble ambitions. But any cease-fire must have the conditions in it so that Hamas does not use Gaza as a place from which to launch rockets."

More than 40 Palestinians were killed in Gaza on Monday, almost half of them children, and five civilians were killed early Tuesday when a shell fired by an Israeli ship hit their house, according to local medical workers. Palestinian officials said the death toll in Gaza has risen to about 550 since Israel began airstrikes on Dec. 27. More than 2,500 people were reported wounded.

At least eight Israelis have died overall, including three soldiers killed Monday evening when they were struck by an Israeli tank shell outside Gaza City, according to military officials. Two dozen others were injured by the errant shell.

The soldiers were engaged in heavy clashes with Hamas fighters in densely populated neighborhoods in northern Gaza, the military reported. Hamas asserted that it had killed several Israeli soldiers.

Hamas has been defiant in the face of the military invasion and fired about 30 rockets from Gaza into southern Israel on Monday, including one that struck an empty kindergarten in Ashdod, according to the Israeli military. A mortar shell also injured two people in the village of Shaar Hanegev. Such rockets have killed four Israelis since hostilities broke out.

Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader, called on Palestinians to "crush your enemy" and urged them to keep targeting Israeli civilians by launching rockets and mortar shells over the fences and barriers that surround the Gaza Strip.

"The Zionists have legitimized the killing of their children by killing our children," he said in a broadcast on Hamas's television station.

As the Israeli military campaign entered its 10th day, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the operation would continue indefinitely. "Hamas has suffered a very heavy blow, but we have yet to reach the goals we set for ourselves, so the offensive continues," he told Israeli legislators.

Israel launched about 40 airstrikes in Gaza on Monday and targeted more than 150 makeshift tunnels along the strip's southern border with Egypt, said Maj. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli military.

Military engineering units also hunted for the smugglers' tunnels from ground level, Israeli officials said. About 300 smugglers' tunnels exist along the border area between Gaza and Egypt, a nine-mile stretch known as the Philadelphia corridor, according to the Israeli military.

Leibovich said Israeli forces also have been targeting weapons caches and the homes of Hamas officials. She blamed Hamas for the rising number of civilian casualties, accusing the Islamist movement of storing explosives in mosques and buildings in densely populated areas.

"We don't have any intention whatsoever to target civilians. The targets we choose are military targets," Leibovich said. "If there were civilian casualties, it would only be under the responsibility of Hamas."

The Israeli army said it allowed 80 trucks carrying emergency supplies to enter Gaza on Monday. But relief agencies said much more was needed. They estimated that two-thirds of Gaza's 1.5 million people were without electricity because several major power lines servicing Gaza from Israel had been cut or damaged.

"Large numbers of people, including many children, are hungry," Maxwell Gaylard, the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, told reporters in Jerusalem. "They are cold. They are without ready access to medical facilities. They are without access to electricity and running water. They are terrified. That by any measure is a humanitarian crisis."

Water supplies for half a million Gaza residents are expected to run out in the coming days, the Red Cross said; water pumps have ceased to function because of the lack of electricity and the lack of fuel to run backup generators.

The Red Cross also complained that an unspecified number of wounded Gazans had died after waiting hours for ambulances to arrive, blaming a lack of coordination between Israeli and Palestinian officials to guarantee their safe passage. "This is of course absolutely appalling," said Antoine Grand, head of the International Red Cross office in Gaza. "The ambulances must reach the injured as fast as possible."

Accounts of conditions inside the territory are difficult to confirm. Israel has banned foreign journalists from entering Gaza.

In New York, the Palestinian Authority's foreign minister, Riad Malki, pressed for the passage of a new U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire and the deployment of foreign peacekeepers to monitor Gaza's borders and protect Palestinian civilians. Malki also voiced frustration that President-elect Barack Obama had yet to comment on the violence in Gaza, contrasting his silence with his public criticism of the gunmen who carried out the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

"We expected him really to be open and responsive to the situation in Gaza, and still we expect him to make a strong statement regarding this as soon as possible," Malki said.

Arab foreign ministers began arriving at U.N. headquarters Monday to show support for the Palestinian diplomatic push to step up international pressure on Israel to halt its military operation in Gaza. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to address the Security Council on Tuesday afternoon to urge passage of the cease-fire resolution.

France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, in a meeting with the Arab foreign ministers, outlined the broad elements of a possible cease-fire pact, according to a European diplomat. It would involve a halt to Palestinian rockets and Israeli military operations. It would also include provisions for the free distribution of humanitarian goods to Gaza and for the protection of Palestinian civilians. The agreement would contain a plan for monitoring implementation of the cease-fire, possibly involving foreign monitors. It would also call for the resumption of negotiations on a Middle East peace process.

Jeremy Issacharoff, Israel's deputy chief of mission in Washington, said Israel did not think the Security Council was the appropriate forum for reaching a settlement. "This is a counterterrorism operation in our point of view," he said.

Staff writers Dan Eggen and Glenn Kessler in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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