Israel, Hamas Reject Efforts to Reach Truce

By Craig Whitlock and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 10, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 9 -- Hopes that diplomacy would end two weeks of fighting in the Gaza Strip were dashed Friday as both Israel and Hamas rejected international pleas for a truce and also backed away from a French-Egyptian plan to end the war.

Israel dismissed a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate and lasting cease-fire, calling the plan "unworkable" because it lacked any guarantee that Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, would stop firing rockets into southern Israel.

Hamas shot more than 30 of the crude missiles into Israeli territory Friday, a slight increase from the day before. No one was killed by the rockets, but they sent a clear message that Israel's offensive has failed to extinguish Hamas's ability to launch attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his military "would go on defending citizens" until the rocket fire ceased and there were firm guarantees it would not resume.

"The firing of rockets this morning only goes to show that the U.N. decision is unworkable and will not be adhered to by the murderous Palestinian organizations," Olmert said.

Hamas said it would not lay down its arms until Israel withdrew its troops and reopened border crossings into Gaza. Israel has imposed an economic blockade on the coastal territory since June 2007, when Hamas forcibly took power in Gaza.

Osama Hamdan, a Hamas representative in Beirut, said the group "is not interested in" the U.N. resolution "because it does not meet the demands of the movement."

Gazans on Friday voiced disappointment that the resolution had not stopped the fighting. "I told my family with lots of hope that this catastrophe would end," said Qassim al-Sayed, 60, who advises students at a university. "But the problem is the United States. They are always with Israel."

The fighting continued as Gazans tried to cope with miserable living conditions that got even worse. "We're back 100 years in 13 days," said Hanan Hanouna, a mother. "There's no electricity. For 10 days we haven't seen water to take a bath."

The unrelenting fighting, she said, had left her despondent. "I have no hope," she said. "You wake up in the morning and you only see death, you only hear death, until you sleep, if you can."

Meanwhile, negotiations stalled over a separate French-Egyptian cease-fire proposal because of disagreements about how to secure Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

Hossam Zaki, a senior Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, said his government is resisting pressure to allow the deployment of foreign forces on its side of the border to prevent the smuggling of weapons to Hamas.

The Israeli military has said that Hamas smuggled 100 tons of weapons into Gaza last year through makeshift tunnels. Officials in Jerusalem have accused Egypt of turning a blind eye to the practice and said they won't agree to a cease-fire unless they are assured the smuggling will stop.

Zaki said the whole issue of "smuggling and arms trafficking has been entirely blown out of proportion."

"No foreign presence will be allowed at the border," he said. "This is something Egypt is not ready to accept."

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States was "working to support the Mubarak initiative, including offering to do whatever we can to help with the smuggling and the illegal arms trafficking."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. agencies last year began providing Egypt with technical help to patrol the border, including sonar equipment designed to locate tunnels. With more such aid, Zaki said, Egypt could patrol the border by itself.

Elsewhere, the United Nations said Friday that it would resume humanitarian-aid deliveries to Gaza, after officials said they received assurances from Israel that relief workers would not be targeted.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency had suspended shipments Friday, a day after a U.N. driver was shot and killed, and another U.N. convoy of vehicles came under fire from Israeli forces, according to the agency.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also curtailed its aid programs Friday, limiting its work to Gaza City after officials said an ambulance driver came under fire.

As fighting continued in Gaza's densely congested streets, more than 20 Palestinians were reported killed Friday, according to Palestinian health officials.

All told, about 780 Palestinians have been killed and 3,300 wounded since Israel began airstrikes Dec. 27, health officials said. Health officials and relief agencies estimate that about half of those killed have been civilians.

Thirteen Israelis have been killed in that time, including four who died in rocket attacks in southern Israel.

Also Friday, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it had confirmed reports of an extended family in the Zaytoun neighborhood south of Gaza City whose members had said they suffered mass casualties after Israeli soldiers forced them into a single house.

The U.N. agency, citing interviews with eyewitnesses, said Israeli troops rounded up about 110 Palestinians and packed them into a large house in Zaytoun on Sunday. About 24 hours later, the house was shelled repeatedly and about 30 people inside were killed, the agency said, calling it "one of the gravest incidents" in Gaza since the fighting began.

Three other children in the house died after reaching a hospital, the U.N. agency said.

U.N. officials said they were unable to confirm whether the Israeli military was responsible for the shelling.

Military officials said Friday they had no record of having specifically targeted buildings in Zaytoun. But they acknowledged that there was significant fighting in the area at the time that several houses were destroyed, and did not deny that Israeli fire might have leveled the buildings. "There was a lot of fire with Hamas. It's a very dangerous area," said Maj. Jacob Dallal, an Israeli military spokesman.

In Geneva, Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for an investigation into the case. "Credible, independent and transparent investigations must be carried out," she told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council. "Accountability must be ensured for violations of international law."

The Red Cross had previously accused the Israeli military of blocking its ambulances from reaching Zaytoun for four days, despite repeated specific requests to respond to distress calls from the neighborhood.

Dallal said the military had no record of having prevented ambulances from getting through to tend to the wounded, but that running battles may have had that effect. "We're dealing with a populated area that had been turned into a combat zone by Hamas," he said.

Raghavan reported from Cairo. Correspondent Griff Witte in Jerusalem and special correspondent Reyham Abdel Kareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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