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Middle East: Israel Rejects Cease-Fire

Palestinians walk in front of tires set ablaze by Palestinian stone-throwers protesting Israel's offensive in Gaza, in al-Ram in the West Bank on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Palestinians walk in front of tires set ablaze by Palestinian stone-throwers protesting Israel's offensive in Gaza, in al-Ram in the West Bank on the outskirts of Jerusalem. (Eric Gaillard - Reuters)

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Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 31, 2008; 2:00 PM

Israeli leaders rejected on Wednesday a proposal to immediately pause attacks on the Gaza Strip for 48 hours, declaring that there were no guarantees Hamas fighters would stop firing rockets into Israel. Discussions were continuing in hopes of developing a more durable cease-fire. But after looking at the existing proposal, "we saw that it did not contain the necessary elements to make the truce permanent," said Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. "It lacks a plan to enforce the ceasefire, to make sure Hamas won't shoot rockets into Israel anymore, and stop the smuggling of weapons."

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Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post foreign correspondent, was online Wednesday, Dec. 31, at 2 p.m. ET from Jerusalem to discuss the rejection of the cease-fire by Israel and international reaction from the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators and from the White House as Arab League nations meet in an emergency session in Cairo.

A transcript follows.

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Sudarsan Raghavan: Hi everyone,

Greetings from Jerusalem. Glad to be with you all today and looking forward to the chat.

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Arlington, Va.: What is the mood like in Jerusalem today? It's awful that a new year is beginning with this much violence afoot.

Sudarsan Raghavan: The mood on the streets of Jerusalem is calm. In some restaurants, guards frisk customers for bombs or weapons but this is quite usual here. It really doesn't feel like a city that is at war. Jerusalem is quite far from Gaza and unlike southern Israel it is highly unlikely that a rocket will hit the city. While there's apprehension, the city on the surface appears to be carrying on with normal life.

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Baltimore, Md.: Do you think the American people have been provided with enough information by the national media to understand the current Middle East situation?

Sudarsan Raghavan: I think the media here is doing its best in covering the conflict giving the enormous restrictions in place. The Israeli defense ministry has denied access to all foreign journalists who seek to enter Gaza. It's an effort, many believe, to prevent the world from seeing and understanding what is happening in the conflict. The Foreign Press Association here has complained and took the issue to Israel's Supreme Court. And the court today ruled that journalists should be allowed access to Gaza. We shall see what Israel's government will do.

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Bethesda, Md.: I don't understand why Israel would agree to ceasefire. Unless Hamas is willing to free Gilad Schalit, and end all rocket fire for good, I must have to agree with Israel's position. Also, why is there so much negative publicity of Israel, when it was Hamas that violated the original ceasefire with continued Kassam rocket fire into Israeli cities? No rational person can say that Israel's reaction is unjustified. Thank you.

Sudarsan Raghavan: It's true that Hamas rockets are terrifying Israelis in the south. I've been down there and I have visited with Israelis who have lost loved ones. Their pain is as great at the Palestinians. But the reason why many believe Israel's actions are unjustified is because of its tactics and use of massive force. The vast gap in death tolls highlight this. Nearly 400 Palestinians have been killed in the past four days. Four Israelis have died. The use of missiles in a densely packed area like Gaza is killing large numbers of civilians and has wounded hundreds more. Israel blames Hamas for using civilians as shields...but no one can deny that the numbers of Palestinians killed is astronomical.

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St. Louis, Mo.: It appears that Israel won't cease fire until Hamas can guarantee an end to arm smuggling and rocket fire. Who really controls Hamas' ability to smuggle arms and fire rockets into Israel?

Sudarsan Raghavan: This is a good question and hard to answer. the tunnels are along the Egypt-Gaza border. Egypt is concerned about Hamas as much as Israel and has sealed off its border with Gaza. Still, those tunnels have been built up over the past few years without anyone stopping Hamas. It remains to be seen if Israel's tactics can stop these tunnels from being rebuilt again.

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Alexandria, Va.: What steps are needed in order for this conflict to settle down? Are these opposing leaders actually meeting face to face? Or are they relying on intermediaries? And if they are meeting, where are the meetings taking place?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Another great question. Hamas and Israel are not meeting face to face, but rather discussing with intermediaries. The Americans and Europeans are trying to convince Israel to agree to a two-day ceasefire to cool things down. Israel rejected that today, saying that there are no guarantees that Hamas won't stop its attacks. Hamas, for its part, says it won't agree to a ceasefire unless Israel lifts its blocked of Gaza. There's a stalemate of sorts...I don't think anyone knows at this stage where the solution lies.

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Bethesda, Md.: I assume the U.S. is involved in trying to get a cease-fire to go through. Who is representing us? And what is our role in all of this, if any?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Yes, the Americans are involved in trying to broker a ceasefire, although France is playing the lead role. Israel's Foreign MInister is headed to Paris tomorrow to continue talks. Today, President Bush spoke with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. We'll see if anything concrete comes out of these discussions to diffuse tensions.

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Rockville, Md.: What is President-elect Obama saying about the situation? Is he taking any role in trying to get the cease fire to go through? And will these strikes and Israel's position lead to any sort of a rocky start for Obama once he is sworn in? What do the opposing sides think of him?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Aside from a couple of statements, Obama has played no role, as far as I know. As he has said, there can only be one U.S. President at a time.

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Falls Church, Va.: Is Iran involved in any of the talks? Is there a feeling that they may be behind Hamas' involvement in this flare-up?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Iran, as far as I know, is not involved in the talks, certainly not publicly.

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Chicago, Ill.: The U.S. is strongly backing Israel in its aggression. How do you think this backing will affect our image there and our credibility? Why can't we be even handed and balanced in the middle east? Why are we ignoring the 300+ dead civilians in Gaza?

Sudarsan Raghavan: This conflict is perhaps more complex than other periods of Israeli-Palestinian violence and it's unclear yet what ramifications this will have on the U.S. images and its efforts to bring Middle East peace. For example, unlike previous uprisings, the Arab countries are divided over whether they should support the Palestinians against Israel. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, key U.S. allies, are concerned about Hamas and its militancy. Yet ordinary Arabs across the middle east are protesting on the streets adding to existing frustrations and resentment at U.S. policies towards Iraq.

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Irving, Texas: Sudarsan, thank you for taking my question.

I have noticed many people are trying to justify the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians by saying that Israel has the right to defend itself forcefully regardless of the death of civilians.

Isn't this strategy the same as Al Qaeda's terrorists when they attacked us on 9/11 and tried to justify the deaths of our fellow civilians by saying that their actual target was our economy?

Shouldn't we condemn the death of innocent civilians regardless of country, race, religion, ideology etc?

Thank you and have a happy new year.

Sudarsan Raghavan: I believe that any death of a civilian by an act of war, Israeli or Palestinian, is unjustified -- and many Israelis and Palestinians I've spoken with echo this.

Let's hope the New Year brings some peace in this world.

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Fairfax, Va.: What does the Palestinian Authority's Fatah/PLO group think of the war against Hamas? On the one hand, Hamas attacked Fatah and kicked them out of Gaza. On the other hand, they are fellow Palestinians.

Sudarsan Raghavan: Great questions... It's mixed, really. There are Fatah supporters who view the Israeli attacks as not against Hamas but against all Palestinians, so they show solidarity. Other Fatah members hope the air strikes will significantly cripple Hamas, allowing them one day to reassert authority in Gaza.

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Arlington, Va.: How much influence do Syria and Iran have on Hamas' tactics day-to-day? Would they be involved with Hamas leadership in any decision to cease fire?

Sudarsan Raghavan: Good question, but this is a murky topic. No one really knows how much control Iran and Syria have on Hamas. Certainly, they have been vocal in expressing outrage at the Israelis.

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Tel Mond, Israel: I don't understand the "proportionality" argument -- who expects war to be equal or to have the same number of dead on both sides? If Hamas targets civilians and hides missiles in homes and mosques, wouldn't they expect heavy Israeli firepower?

Sudarsan Raghavan: That is precisely one of the arguments the Israeli government makes to justify its use of force on Gaza. Hamas definitely shares the blame for the current crisis and civilian casualties. Sadly, like so many conflicts, it's innocent civilians who suffer the most while leaders on both sides seek to justify their actions.

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Silver Spring, Md.: What about the limited medical supplies for the victims in Gaza? Who is helping all the injured Palestinians throughout this ordeal?

Sudarsan Raghavan: This is a great question. There are humanitarian supplies starting to trickle in. Israel today promised to allow vast amounts of aid to flow into Gaza. But the needs of Palestinian people are immense. We published a story today detailing the massive needs and challenges facing Shifa Hospital, the largest in Gaza. Doctors don't even have enough scissors and lack most antibiotics. People are really worried that many patients will die for lack of resources...

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Sudarsan Raghavan: Folks, thanks for all your great questions. I apologize for the ones I did not get to answer. But I have to file a story.

All the best wishes for the New Year.

Cheers,

Sudarsan

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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