Kerry issues warning as Syrian parties back halt to fighting


The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebel groups accepted a plan for a cessation of hostilities to begin on Saturday and the United States warned it would be hard to hold the country together if the fighting did not stop.

With hostilities reported on several fronts, rebels backed by Saudi Arabia expressed doubts about the proposal, which excludes attacks by the Syrian army and its Russian backers on the jihadist groups Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Saudi-backed rebels said Russia had stepped up air strikes since the plan was announced on Monday. 

For its part, the government in Damascus has made clear that continued foreign help for the rebels could wreck the deal.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States would soon know if the plan would take hold. “The proof will be in the actions that come in the next days,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington.

If a political transition to a government to replace the current administration does not unfold in Syria, there are options, Kerry said, in a reference to undefined contingency plans believed to include military action.

The next month or two would show if that transition process was serious and Assad would have to make “some real decisions about the formation of a transitional governance process that's real,” Kerry said.

Faced with skepticism about the cessation plan, Kerry said that things in Syria could get uglier.

“It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer,” he said.

Kerry insisted Washington is working on ways to react if diplomacy does not work. “There is a significant discussion taking place now about Plan B if we don't succeed at the table,” Kerry said.

France said the leaders of the United States, France, Britain and Germany hoped the cessation deal could take effect soon.

The plan is the result of intense diplomacy to end the five-year-long war that has killed 250,000 and forced millions to flee their homes helping to cause a refugee crisis in Europe.

But rebels say the exclusion of Islamic State and Nusra Front will give the government a pretext to keep attacking them because its fighters are widely spread in opposition-held areas.

WAR OF WORDS

The Syrian government, backed by Russian air strikes since September, said it would coordinate with Russia to define which groups and areas would be included in what it called a “halt to combat operations”. 

The terminology reflects the difficulties of getting peace efforts under way, with talks in Geneva making no headway and the failure amid further fighting of a cessation of hostilities announced on Feb. 12.

The United Nations describes a cessation as something that would precede the more formal ceasefire it is hoping to establish at some future date.

U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said: “A ceasefire implies a whole mechanism and agreements, signed agreements between the parties etc. This is a cessation of hostilities that we hope will take force very quickly and provide a breathing space for the intra-Syrian talks to resume.” 

Assad objects to the word “ceasefire”, saying it is something concluded between armies or states. “It does not happen between a state and terrorists,” he said last week. Instead, he has offered a “halt to combat operations”.

The Russian intervention in the fighting has turned the momentum Assad's way in a conflict that has mostly reduced his area of control to the big cities of the west and the coast.

U.S. Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he did not believe Russia was convinced it would suffer any consequences if the plan fails. He said he expected Assad's forces, backed by Russia, would continue to seize territory.

“I don't think Russia believes that anything is going to happen. And I think that's why they continue to make the gains,” Corker said.

ALEPPO SUPPLY ROUTE

On Tuesday, Islamic State fighters were reported to have tightened their grip on a supply route to Aleppo that had been used by the Syrian government in its campaign to seize the city.

Heavy Russian air strikes in support of the army were also said to be targeting one of the last roads into opposition-held parts of Aleppo.

Damascus, backed by ground forces including Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is making significant advances near Aleppo, which is split between rebel- and government-control.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports the war using a network of sources on the ground, said Islamic State fighters had seized the village of Khanaser on the road, which remained closed for a second day. A Syrian military source told Reuters that army operations continued to repel the attack.

In a statement on the proposed cessation of hostilities, the government in Damascus stressed the importance of sealing Syria's borders and halting foreign support for armed groups whose activities it said could wreck the agreement.

BLOCKADES, AID AND AIR STRIKES

The Syrian military reserved the right to “respond to any breach by these groups against Syrian citizens or against its armed forces”, the government statement added.

The main, Saudi-backed Syrian opposition body said late on Monday it consented to international efforts, but said acceptance of a truce was conditional on an end to blockades of rebel-held areas, free access for humanitarian aid, a release of detainees, and a halt to air strikes against civilians.

The opposition High Negotiations Committee also said it did not expect Assad, Russia or Iran to cease hostilities.

The powerful Kurdish YPG militia, which is fighting both Islamic State and rebels near Aleppo, is “seriously examining” the U.S.-Russian plan to decide whether to take part, a YPG official told Reuters. 

Turkey, a major sponsor of the insurgency against Assad, said it welcomed plans for the halt to fighting but was not optimistic about a positive outcome to talks on a political transition.

A rebel fighter in the Aleppo area said he did not expect the ceasefire plan to work and Russian warplanes “will not stop bombing.”

Barrage of rockets strikes Israel as bomb shelters ordered open


Hamas claimed responsibility for a barrage of rockets fired on southern and central Israel, including Tel Aviv.

More than two dozen rockets were fired fr0m the Gaza Strip between the hours of 10 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Two rockets landed in an empty area in the greater Tel Aviv area, according to the Israel Defense Forces, and at least two were reported intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. At least four rockets also landed in Beersheba and three in Sderot.

A Code Red warning was heard in Beit Shemesh, located west of Jerusalem.

Rockets were fired from Gaza beginning on Tuesday afternoon in contravention of a 24-hour cease-fire extension agreed to late Monday night just as a five-day cease-fire was expiring.

Earlier Tuesday evening, a rocket struck a shopping center near Ashkelon, causing damage, according to Israel’s Channel 2.

Israel has retaliated with airstrikes on Gaza. At least one child was reported killed in the strikes, according to the Palestinian Maan news agency.

Also Tuesday night, the Israeli military ordered communities up to 50 miles away from the Gaza border to open public bomb shelters in light of the restarted rocket fire.

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday afternoon confirmed that rockets had been fired from Gaza, violating the cease-fire, and reaffirmed that Hamas has “security responsibility” for Gaza.

“We are very concerned about the developments in Gaza and condemn the rocket fire today and support Israel’s right to defend itself,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.”We call for immediate end to hostilities and rocket fire and we call on the parties to go back to talks on cease-fire.”

Israel withdraws troops, 72-hour Gaza truce begins


Israel withdrew ground forces from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and started a 72-hour cease-fire with Hamas mediated by Egypt as a first step towards negotiations on a more enduring end to the month-old war.

Minutes before the truce began at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT), Hamas launched a salvo of rockets, calling them revenge for Israel's “massacres.” Israel's anti-missile system shot down one rocket over Jerusalem, police said. Another hit a house in a town near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. There were no casualties.

Israeli armor and infantry left Gaza ahead of the truce, with a military spokesman saying their main goal of destroying cross-border infiltration tunnels dug by Islamist militants had been completed. “Mission accomplished,” the military tweeted.

Troops and tanks will be “redeployed in defensive positions outside the Gaza Strip and we will maintain those defensive positions,” spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said, reflecting Israeli readiness to resume fighting if attacked.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the Islamist Hamas faction that rules Gaza, said Israel's offensive in the densely populated, coastal enclave was a “100 percent failure”.

Israel sent officials to join talks in Cairo to cement a longer-term deal during the course of the truce. Hamas and Islamic Jihad also dispatched representatives from Gaza.

In Gaza, where some half-million people have been displaced by a month of bloodshed, some residents, carrying mattresses and with children in tow, left U.N. shelters to trek back to neighbourhoods where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling and the smell of decomposing bodies fills the air.

Sitting on a pile of debris on the edge of the northern town of Beit Lahiya, Zuhair Hjaila, a 33-year-old father of four, said he had lost his house and his supermarket.

“This is complete destruction,” he said. “I never thought I would come back to find an earthquake zone.”

Visiting International Red Cross President Peter Maurer, responding to local criticism that his organisation was late in helping some of the victims, said “we were insufficiently able to bridge the gap between our willingness to protect them and our ability to do so”.

TRUCE ATTEMPTS

Several previous truce attempts by Egypt and other regional powers, overseen by the United States and United Nations, failed to calm the worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting in two years.

An Israeli official said that in the hour before the ceasefire came into effect, the civilian airspace over Tel Aviv was closed as a precaution against Gaza rockets, and takeoffs and landings were delayed at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Gaza officials say the war has killed 1,867 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed since fighting began on July 8, after a surge in Palestinian rocket launches.

Hamas said it had informed Egypt “of its acceptance of a 72-hour period of calm”, beginning on Tuesday.

The Palestinian cabinet issued a statement after its weekly meeting in Ramallah welcoming the ceasefire.

The U.S. State Department also welcomed the truce and urged the parties to “respect it completely”. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington would continue its efforts to help the sides achieve a “durable, sustainable solution for the long term”.

Efforts to turn the ceasefire into a lasting truce could prove difficult, with the sides far apart on their central demands, and each rejecting the other's legitimacy. Hamas rejects Israel's existence, and vows to destroy it, while Israel denounces Hamas as a terrorist group and eschews any ties.

Besides the truce, Palestinians demand an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on impoverished Gaza and the release of prisoners including those Israel arrested in a June crackdown in the occupied West Bank after three Jewish seminary students were kidnapped and killed.

Israel has resisted those demands in the past.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said there was “clear evidence” of war crimes by Israel during its offensive in Gaza as he met International Criminal Court prosecutors in The Hague on Tuesday to push for an investigation.

Both sides have traded allegations of war crimes during the Gaza assault, while defending their own actions as consistent with international law.

ISRAEL: DEMILITARIZE GAZA

Lerner said the army overnight destroyed the last of 32 tunnels located inside Gaza and which had been dug by Hamas for cross-border ambushes at an estimated cost of $100 million.

Israeli officials say, however, that some tunnels may have gone undetected and that the armed forces are poised to strike at these in the future.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also wants to disarm Hamas and demilitarize Gaza, after guerrillas launched more than 3,300 rockets and mortar bombs at Israel this past month. Hamas has ruled that out.

“For Israel the most important issue is the issue of demilitarization. We must prevent Hamas from rearming, we must demilitarize the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told Reuters television.

Since the fighting began, several previous truces barely held. Regev said Israel had accepted Egypt's terms weeks before Hamas, and expressed a wish that the truce would last: “I hope this time we see the ceasefire work that's good for everybody.”

Egypt has positioned itself as a mediator in successive Gaza

conflicts but, like Israel, its current administration views Hamas as a security threat.

Besides the loss of life, the war has cost both sides economically. Gaza faces a massive $6-billion price tag to rebuild devastated infrastructure. Israel has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism, other industry, and fears cuts in overall economic growth this year as well.

Palestinian officials said a donor conference to raise funds for Gaza's reconstruction would be held in Oslo next month.

In London, a British minister, Sayeeda Warsi, resigned on Tuesday, saying she could not support government policy on the war. While his government has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, Prime Minister David Cameron has been criticised by the opposition for refusing to describe Israel's military actions in Gaza as disproportionate.

Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, William James and Kylie MacLellan in London, Jussi Rosendahl in The Hague; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Giles Elgood, Editing by Mark Heinrich

Rockets from Gaza still striking Israel after it accepts cease-fire


Rockets fired from Gaza continued to land in populated areas of Israel after its security Cabinet accepted and put into effect an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire.

The Cabinet announced in a one-sentence statement its acceptance of the cease-fire at 9 a.m. Tuesday, the time it was scheduled to go into effect.

More than 35 rockets landed in southern Israel and further inward in the hours after Israel put the cease-fire into effect. Rockets were fired as far north as Haifa and Zichron Yaakov.

Hamas took responsibility for the long-range rocket fired on Haifa that was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Also, a home in Ashdod was hit by a rocket fired Tuesday morning.

“Israel’s leadership has directed our forces to suspend strikes in Gaza. We remain prepared to respond to Hamas attacks and defend Israel,” the IDF spokesman said Tuesday morning.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement early Tuesday afternoon following a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that Israel will defend itself if necessary,  despite accepting a cease-fire.

“We accepted the Egyptian proposal in order to present an opportunity for Gaza to be disarmed of its missiles, rockets, and tunnels through political means, but if Hamas does not accept this proposed cease-fire – and this is how it appears at present — Israel will have full international legitimacy for an expanded military operation to return the necessary quiet,” he said.

Hamas reportedly rejected the cease-fire proposal, calling it unacceptable. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told the Palestinian Maan news agency that Hamas was not officially informed of the proposal by the Egyptians or any other party.

“We are a people under occupation and resistance is a legitimate right for occupied peoples,” he said, according to Maan.

Reuters reported Tuesday morning, however, that Hamas leadership was in Cairo debating the proposed Gaza truce and meeting with Egyptian officials.

The military wing of Islamic Jihad called the proposal a “surrender.”

“If what has been circulated is true, this initiative means kneeling and submissiveness, and so we completely refuse it and to us, it’s not worth the ink used in writing it,” a statement said, according to Maan.

Meanwhile, at least five Israelis were injured early Tuesday morning when three rockets were fired at the southern resort town of Eilat. One of the rockets struck four cars, sparking a fire. The rockets were launched from the Sinai Peninsula, Haaretz reported.

Overnight, the Israeli Air Force attacked 25 Gaza targets. In the 24 hours ending Tuesday morning, the IAF attacked 132 targets, including more than 50 concealed rocket launching pads and 11 weapons storage facilities. Among the targets hit was the home of Marwan Issa, the leader of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

More than 180 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday morning decided not to fly to the area to push the cease-fire following his nine-day trip to Asia and Europe, as he had been considering.

U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro posted on his Facebook page a statement attributed to Kerry: “The Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire & negotiations provides an opportunity to end the violence and restore calm. We welcome the Israeli cabinet’s decision to accept it. We urge all other parties to accept the proposal.”

 

Across enemy lines, wounded Syrians seek Israeli care


Not a hundred miles from Damascus, a Syrian rebel lies in a hospital bed, an Israeli sentry at the door. Nearby a Syrian mother sits next to her daughter, shot in the back by a sniper.

What started this year as a trickle is now a steady flow of Syrians, scores of civilians and fighters wounded in the civil war and being discreetly brought across the Golan frontline into Israel — a country with which Syria is formally still at war.

For all the advantages it brings of excellent medical care, it is a journey fraught with risk for those who fear the wrath of President Bashar Assad's government.

“There was one man, where I am from, who was treated in Israel. The regime forces killed his three brothers,” the teenage girl's mother said. “They will kill my sons and my husband if they ever find out we were here.”

For fear of retribution back home, Syrians in Israeli clinics who spoke to Reuters asked not to be named.

The woman's 16-year-old daughter, whose wounds have left her paralysed in both legs, lies stone-faced as an Israeli hospital clown juggles and dances, trying in vain to raise a smile.

[Related: Jews helping Syrians: Never invited, always welcome]

For the past month, she has been at the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, on Israel's Mediterranean coast, about 50 miles west of the U.N.-monitored ceasefire line in the Golan Heights that has kept Israeli and Syrian forces apart since they fought in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

A few weeks ago, a battle was raging in her home village between Assad's forces and rebel fighters. There was a lull, her mother said, and the girl opened the front door to see if it was safe out. Her aunt told her to shut it again because there was a sniper in the house opposite. As she did so, he shot her.

“I saw her falling to the floor, in all the blood,” her mother recounted. “I was terrified I was going to lose her. I said 'Please, I don't want to bury my children one by one'.”

The girl was rushed to a rebel field hospital, where Syrian medics removed a bullet lodged in a lung. But they could not provide the further care she needed. The girl, they said, should be taken across the border, to Jordan or to Israel.

“We would get Israeli television channels in my village. I knew that medicine here is advanced,” the mother said. “In Jordan I would have to pay for it and we do not have enough money. Here it is free.”

The woman declined to say exactly how she and her daughter reached the Israeli lines in the Golan so that soldiers could transport them to hospital. She did say that Syrian rebel fighters helped them reach the area of the Israel-Syria front.

BORDERS

More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war which began in 2011. According to the United Nations, more than 2 million refugees have fled the country, most to neighbouring Jordan and Turkey. Of the population of about 20 million, one third is displaced, either inside or outside Syria.

Israel refuses to accept refugees from a country with which it is still technically at war. But it does provide medical care and, always concerned to counter the negative image it has in most of the Arab world, it has made no secret of doing so.

The Nahariya hospital has treated more than 80 Syrian patients since March, around the time the Israeli military began taking in wounded Syrians who reach its lines seeking help.

The army does not reveal how the Syrians are brought over, nor whether it coordinates with rebels or others who deliver them into Israeli hands. “This is a very sensitive issue and people's lives are at stake,” a military spokeswoman said.

U.N. military observers based along the 45-mile ceasefire line did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six Day War of 1967 and much of its population, many of them from the Druze sect, resettled beyond the ceasefire line in Syria. A small Arab Druze community remained under Israeli occupation and has kept in contact with relatives inside Syria.

The Israeli army has set up a field hospital on a mountain ridge that overlooks a cluster of Syrian villages on the plain.

Gunfire and explosions from battles there often sound across the frontline fence. Some wounded Syrians who have reached the boundary have been treated at the Israeli field hospital and then sent back. Others are transported to hospitals in Israel.

“We don't know how they come in,” said Shukri Kassis, a doctor at the Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli town of Safed, 25 miles from the Syrian frontline. “We just get notified by the army doctors that they are bringing them here.”

Kassis said his clinic had taken in more than 90 Syrians since February. The Israel government declines to give a total figure for how many have been treated in its hospitals.

EXECUTION

Staff at Nahariya said one man they treated had survived his own execution. He was shot at close range in the back of the head. Another young woman was shot in the head by a sniper.

Both are now back in Syria, their fate unknown. “It is very hard for us, after they go back, not knowing what happens to them after they return,” said Naama Shachar, head nurse at the children's intensive care unit in Nahariya.

In another ward, a man in his 20s sat up in bed staring down at his thigh, his lower leg now gone. He said he was a fighter in the Free Syrian Army. He was shot in a battle with Assad's forces a few weeks ago. He did not say where.

He recalled medics at a rebel field hospital trying to save his left leg but had no memory of how he got to Israel, a journey long enough for gangrene to turn his flesh black.

“I remember waking up in the emergency room,” he said. “The doctor said that to save my life they must amputate my leg and he asked me to sign the consent.”

The International Red Cross visits patients and offers assistance in contacting families. Some patients say they have sent word back home. Others fear that any message revealing their whereabouts would endanger their relatives.

The 16-year-old's mother has had no contact with her six other children left behind. “I worry about them all the time, if they are safe or not. There is no phone, only God to pray to,” she said, pointing upwards as her eyes welled up with tears.

FRIEND OR FOE

Israel has not taken sides in the Syrian war. Assad, allied with Israel's arch-enemy Iran, is also helped by fighters from Lebanese militia Hezbollah, another long-time foe. But those they combat worry Israel too. Among the rebels are al Qaeda-linked Islamists, also no friends of the Jewish state.

At the hospitals, the army stations military police outside the rooms of most male patients. Many of these, staff said, have come in with wounds most likely sustained in combat. At Ziv, doctors checking one fighter's pockets found a hand grenade.

“They could be al Qaeda. We just don't know,” one staff member said, adding that the men were being guarded for their own safety too – in case of disputes among patients.

With many Israeli medical staff being native Arabic speakers, communication with Syrian patients presents little problem. And many of the wounded and relatives have responded to a welcoming environment by modifying hostile views of Israel.

“For us, Israel was always the enemy,” one Syrian woman from the southern city of Deraa said at Ziv, where she and her eight-year-old daughter were being treated after being caught in an explosion. “Thank God, I am happy here. I am well treated.”

The Free Syrian Army fighter said word of Israeli treatment was spreading back home: “I was happy when I found I was here,” he said. “Most fighters know they will get good care in Israel.”

Medical staff say they make no distinctions among those they treat and some have formed close bonds with Syrian patients:

“In medicine there are no borders, no colour, no nationality,” said Oscar Embon, director general of the Ziv Medical Center in Safed. “You treat each and every person and I am proud that we are able to do this.”

Syrian rebels capture 20 U.N. observers [VIDEO]


Syrian rebels held 20 U.N. officials who monitor the Israel-Syria ceasefire, the first time such officials have been targeted in the insurgency.

The members of the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force were reviewing damage at an observation post that had been evacuated over the weekend when they were captured and held by insurgents, the New York Times reported.

A group called Martyrs of Yarmook claimed responsibility in a video posted on YouTube and demanded a withdrawal of Syrian government forces from the area.

The U.N. Security Council called for the release of the observers, Israel Radio reported.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The U.N. observer force has monitored a ceasefire since it was brokered in 1974 by the United States.

The border has remained peaceful since then, although since the insurgency was launched in 2011, there have been a number of incidents of cross-border fire.

Talks on details of Israel-Hamas cease-fire resume in Cairo


Negotiators for Israel and Hamas are holding separate talks with Egyptian mediators to iron out the details of last week's cease-fire.

The talks began Monday in Cairo. The Egyptian-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza went into effect last week, ending eight days of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense against Gaza.

Six Israelis, four of them civilians, and 167 Palestinians, both terrorists and civilians, were killed during the operation.

More than 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel by terror organizations in Gaza during the operation, and Israel said it bombed more than 1,000 terror targets in the coastal strip.

Among the topics to be negotiated are loosening the restrictions on people and goods traveling to and from Gaza, as well as putting a halt to arms smuggling into Gaza, according to reports.

Israeli and Hamas sources would not comment on the parallel negotiations, according to The New York Times. Israel does not negotiate directly with Hamas, which it has designated a terror group.

Gazan farmers and demonstrators have been testing the limits of the cease-fire, entering a no-go zone that Israel established near the border. A Palestinian man was killed Nov. 23 when he approached the border fence with Israel.

Israeli reservists frustrated, willing to fight in Gaza again


At 6:30 a.m. on Friday morning, two days after the current round of fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas began, the phone rang in Rafi’s house in Jerusalem, calling him up for reserve service in his combat infantry unit.

Rafi, 28, who, like all the reservists interviewed for this story asked not to use his last name, threw a few things in a duffel bag, left his wife and his biotechnology start-up company and reported to a pre-arranged assembly point in Jerusalem. The reservists boarded buses and were driven to their supply base. Within hours, they were down south, near Israel’s border with Gaza.

The reserve troops trained on Saturday even though it was the Jewish Sabbath when Orthodox Jews like Rafi do not usually drive, use electricity or fire a gun. But Israel’s rabbis have ruled that during a time of war, the religious laws may be violated. By Sunday, they were ready for the ground operation in Gaza.

“I thought it’s about time – [Hamas] had been firing a lot of rockets on the south and building up their weapons stocks, and Israel cannot allow that to continue,” Rafi told The Media Line. “We kept training on the specific tasks that my unit was assigned to – learning the map and studying the trail we’d be taking into Gaza.”

After four days, a cease-fire was declared and Rafi, along with the 50,000 other reservists who had been called up, was demobilized and sent home.

“For about 15-minutes I was boiling with anger, because I don’t think the cease-fire is going to hold. We had an important job to do that is not being done,” he said. “But after 15 minutes I started thinking of the bigger picture and realized that the government is considering other issues like Iran and Egypt. In the bigger picture, it was probably better to solve the problem outside the field of battle.”

Not all reservists are this sanguine. Shai, 44, a tank commander and the father of three boys, did not have to obey the mobilization order for his unit as soldiers are not required to do reserve duty after age 40. Yet, he volunteered, eager to join the expected ground operation in Gaza.

“All of us in the unit badly wanted to go inside Gaza because we wanted to stop the rocket fire and you can’t do that unless you bring in ground troops,” he told The Media Line. “We knew we would lose soldiers but we wanted to do it for our country and for quiet.”

Shai thinks the truce will not hold, and those called up were being used for political maneuvering in advance of Israel’s election. He says the soldiers were sent to the border just to scare Hamas, with no real intention of launching an actual ground operation. He feels it is only a matter of time until the rocket fire resumes and he gets another call-up.

“Next time, I and my friends might not come,” he says angrily. “Since we’re over 40 it’s not mandatory. If I were outside Israel on vacation, I wouldn’t come back to be used as a pawn in a political game.”

Reservists play a more important role in the Israeli army than in perhaps any other army in the world. While Jewish men are drafted at the age of 18 for three years, and women for two, many men continue to perform reserve through their thirties. According to army figures, there are 176,500 active personnel and 445,000 reservists. Many Israelis routinely leave their families and businesses for up to a month each year, often a difficult disruption.

“I missed five days of school, two tests and one assignment,” Aharon, 26, a paratroop reservist who is studying law and business told The Media Line. “It was a horrible waste of time.”

He added, however, that he would show up if he was called again.

University officials said they would make special accommodations for students who had been called up, and most workplaces are used to employees taking time off for reserve duty. Aharon’s response is typical, say Israeli military officials.

“In times of crisis, the reservists show up and this time more people turned up than were needed,” army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich told The Media Line. “In my own unit, I called up two reservists and got dozens of phone calls from people who wanted to come and serve.”

Some military analysts say reservists’ frustration with what they saw as an inconclusive end to the fighting is natural, and will diminish over the next few months.

“They were called in to fight – they left their families and businesses and wanted to achieve victory,” Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service and former commander of Israel’s navy, told The Media Line. “We did not achieve victory or unconditional surrender the way wars used to end in the past century. You finish your training and then the operation is cancelled – it’s very frustrating.”

Other military analysts say that soldiers should be grateful that the ground operation was canceled.

“A wise soldier is never angry about not fighting and an experienced soldier does not feel bad if something was canceled,” Major General Emanuel Sakal, the former head of Israel army ground forces, told The Media Line. “With or without the reservists the story of Gaza will repeat itself again and again. There is no simple solution and the frustration the reservists felt is the same frustration all Israelis feel.”

Israel, Hamas teams in Cairo for more truce talks


Egyptian mediators began separate talks on Monday with Hamas and with Israel to flesh out details of a ceasefire agreed last week that ended eight days of fighting in the Gaza Strip.

An Egyptian official told Reuters the talks would discuss Palestinian demands for the opening of more Israeli crossings into Gaza – a move that would help end six years of blockade of the coastal enclave ruled by the Islamist Hamas.

The Egyptian-brokered ceasefire came into force last Wednesday, ending hostilities between the two sides that cost the lives of 167 Palestinians and six Israelis.

However, the text of the truce stipulated that issues such as access to the borders, free movement for Gazans and the transfer of goods would be dealt with “after 24 hours.”

Israel imposed restrictions on Gaza in 2006, following an election victory by Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. The curbs were tightened, and backed by Egypt, after Hamas seized control of the enclave in a civil war.

Some of the import and export limits have since been eased, but Israel still prevents a long list of goods into the territory – including many items needed for construction – arguing they could be used for the manufacture of weapons.

Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar told reporters on Saturday that the group wanted to see the opening of all four goods crossings with Israel that used to operate before 2006.

Only one operates at present, with a second passenger terminal reserved for the handful of Palestinians and foreigners who are allowed in and out of the territory.

The Egyptian official said Cairo would also urge both sides to cement their commitments to the ceasefire agreement.

Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian man on Friday after he approached the Gazan “no-go” border area, apparently in the belief that under the terms of the ceasefire deal he was unable to go up to the heavily patrolled fence.

Alarmed by the prospect of the truce failing, Egypt encouraged Hamas police to be deployed along the border line to keep Gazans away and prevent further violence.

A day later Israeli troops avoided interfering when Gaza farmers neared the fence to tend to their land, and Israel also eased its restrictions at sea, permitting Gaza fishermen to head farther away from the coast than in the past three years.

Israel launched its air offensive against the Gaza Strip on November 14 with the declared aim of deterring Islamist militants from firing rockets into its territory.

The Israeli military also says its soldiers have come under increasing attack from the border area this year, including earlier this month when a jeep was hit by an anti-tank missile.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told an Austrian newspaper in remarks due for publication on Tuesday that “the most important thing right now is ensuring that there are no illegal deliveries of rockets and weapons to Hamas” and “free access and freedom of movement in Gaza”.

Ban thought the Gaza crisis also showed “the status quo is no option” and urged a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stalled since 2010, though Hamas has had no role in those negotiations as it rejects any recognition of Israel.

Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; Additional reporting by Michael Shields, in Vienna; Editing by Alison Williams

Report: Palestinian killed, 19 hurt by IDF gunfire


Israeli soldiers reportedly killed one man and wounded another 19 near the fence which separates Gaza from Israel.

Troops opened fire in Khan Younis on Friday after “several rioters damaged the fence and attempted to cross into Israel's territory,” the IDF spokesperson told Israel’s Army Radio.

“IDF forces made efforts to disperse the rioters, and when they refused to leave warning shots were fired,” the army said.

According to the IDF, troops fired at the legs of the rioters who attempted to cross the border. One man who managed to enter Israel was detained and later returned to Gaza, according to the news site Ynet.

The Palestinian news agency Ma'an, which cited witnesses and medical officials in Gaza, reported the dead Palestinian was 21 years old and that another 18 were injured. A relative of the man told Reurters that the 21-year-old tried to hang a Hamas flag on the fence. An IDF soldier fired three times in the air and finally the man was shot in the head.

A top Islamic Jihad official, Nafez Azzam, condemned the incident and said it constituted a breach of the truce as well, the news agency said.

In the West Bank, IDF forces reportedly arrested a few dozen Hamas supporters, according to Army Radio. Four of those arrested are Palestinian parliamentarians, including the Parliament secretary general, Mahmoud al-Ramhi.

Cease-fire agreement between Israel and Gaza [FULL TEXT]


Following is the verbatim English text of the ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza that was reached on Wednesday with Egyptian mediation. The text was distributed by the Egyptian presidency.

Agreement of Understanding For a Ceasefire in the Gaza Strip

1: (no title given for this section)

A. Israel should stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land, sea and air including incursions and targeting of individuals.

B. All Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel including rocket attacks and all attacks along the border.

C. Opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents' free movements and targeting residents in border areas and procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.

D. Other matters as may be requested shall be addressed.

2: Implementation mechanisms:

A. Setting up the zero hour for the ceasefire understanding to enter into effect.

B. Egypt shall receive assurances from each party that the party commits to what was agreed upon.

C. Each party shall commit itself not to perform any acts that would breach this understanding. In case of any observations Egypt as the sponsor of this understanding shall be informed to follow up.

Reporting by Marwa Awad; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Ban Ki-moon urges ‘maximum restraint’ after Israel-Hamas ceasefire


U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Israel and Hamas to stick to pledges under a cease-fire deal which came into effect on Wednesday to end the eight-day conflict around the Gaza Strip.

“We urge the parties who agreed to the ceasefire to keep their promises. There may be challenges implementing this agreement,” Ban told reporters after talks with King Abdullah at the monarch's residence in the Jordanian capital.

Ban urged the two sides to exercise “maximum restraint.”

Israel’s battle damage report says Hamas crippled


Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense has crippled the military power of Gaza's ruling Islamist movement Hamas, the Israeli military said on Wednesday, as an Egyptian-brokered truce halted eight days of combat.

In a statement, the military named key militant leaders killed by Israel and listed weapons and bases destroyed.

Referring to the confrontation pitting Hamas rockets against Israeli air strikes and naval artillery as “the fighting in the south”, it said the offensive launched on Nov. 14 had “accomplished its pre-determined objectives.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the aim of the operation was to stop Hamas, Islamic Jihad and smaller militant groups firing rockets and mortar bombs at southern Israeli communities. The militants, who reject Israel's right to exist, say they are defending Gaza against Israeli aggression.

Israel targeted 1,500 sites, the military said in its detailed summary of the conflict, and the “command and control apparatus of Hamas was significantly struck”.

Targets included “19 senior command centres, operational control centres and Hamas' senior-rank headquarters, 30 senior operatives, hundreds of underground rocket launchers, 140 smuggling tunnels, 66 terror tunnels, dozens of Hamas operation rooms and bases, 26 weapon manufacturing and storage facilities and dozens of long-range rocket launchers and launch sites”.

“These actions have severely impaired Hamas's launching capabilities, resulting in a decreasing number of rockets being fired from the Gaza Strip,” the army said. Israel captured Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war and withdrew unilaterally in 2005.

It did not give any estimate of how many Palestinians were killed in its operation, but named seven senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives who had been “targeted.”

They included one man in charge of anti-tank operations, another in propaganda, a senior police officer, a man in charge of air defense and another responsible for tunnel operations in the south where Hamas has smuggled in weapons via Egypt.

Gaza health ministry officials say over 160 people were killed in Israeli air strikes and shelling in the narrow enclave, more than half of them civilians including 37 children.

The Israeli military said Hamas fighters and other militant groups fired 1,506 rockets from Gaza into Israel, of which 316 were launched on Nov. 15, the day after an air strike killed the acting head of Hamas's armed wing, Ahmed al-Jaabari.

Most of the rockets, 875, exploded in open country. Israel's Iron Dome interceptor missiles knocked out 421 in mid-air and 58 exploded in urban areas, killing five Israelis and wounding 240, the military's battle damage account said. Failed launches accounted for a further 152 rockets.

“These operational achievements provided the underlying framework for this evening's ceasefire agreement,” the Israeli military command said. The truce mediated by Egypt commits both sides to stop shooting, but leaves other parts of the agreement to be finalised.

“The 'Iron Dome' defense system has accomplished a high rate of successful interceptions (84 percent) and Hamas' accuracy with regards to hitting populated areas within Israel remained below 7 percent,” the statement said.

Israelis – especially in Tel Aviv which came under Gaza rocket fire for the first time – were grateful for the shield in the sky. But many question whether Hamas has been effectively disarmed and deterred by Israel's latest military onslaught.

Editing by Alistair Lyon

Bus explodes in Tel Aviv in apparent terror attack; Hamas celebrates


A bomb exploded on a bus in central Tel Aviv on Wednesday, wounding 15 people in what Israeli officials said was a terrorist attack that could complicate efforts to secure a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

Celebratory gunfire rang out across Gaza as the news spread and the territory's Islamist rulers Hamas praised the bombing, but no one claimed immediate responsibility.

The blast shattered windows on the bus as it drove along a tree-lined street next to Israel's huge defence ministry headquarters. Israel's ambulance service said four people suffered moderate-to-severe injuries and 11 were lightly hurt.

Police said it was not a suicide attack and suggested that someone might have left the device on the number 142 bus.

The driver, who escaped largely unscathed, told reporters he had not seen anyone suspicious get on board.

“I felt the explosion … Smoke was everywhere, you couldn't see a thing,” he said. The blue and white vehicle was not torn apart by the blast, indicating it was a relatively small device.

The bombing happened on the eighth day of an Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip and coincided with intensive diplomatic efforts to secure a lasting truce.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri hailed the explosion.

“Hamas blesses the attack in Tel Aviv and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli massacres…in Gaza,” he told Reuters. “Palestinian factions will resort to all means in order to protect our Palestinian civilians in the absence of a world effort to stop the Israeli aggression.”

Sweet cakes were handed out in celebration in Gaza's main hospital, which has been inundated with wounded from the round-the-clock Israeli bombing and shelling.

“GATES OF HELL”

“You opened the gates of hell on yourselves,” Hamas's armed wing, the al-Qassam brigades, said on Twitter. “Oh Zionists, you have to drag yourselves out of hell, go back home now, go back to Germany, Poland, Russia, America and anywhere else.”

The last time a bomb blast hit Israel's commercial capital was in April 2006, when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 11 people at a sandwich stand near the old central bus station.

Hamas militants have fired at least four rockets at the laid-back Mediterranean metropolis over the past week, but they scored no direct hits and caused no casualties.

Israel launched its air offensive with the stated aim of halting all missile launches out of the Gaza Strip, which lies some 70 km (40 miles) south of Tel Aviv, a cosmopolitan city renowned for its nightlife and vibrant beach culture.

Hamas had warned when the latest conflict flared that it would not confine itself to unleashing rockets.

“This was a terror attack. There is a massive preparedness within the police and security forces. We must keep awareness to a maximum. These are not normal times,” said Israel's Police Chief Yohanan Danino.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon denounced the attack, saying nothing justified the targeting of civilians.

The United States, Israel's main ally, also condemned the bus bombing. “These attacks against innocent Israeli civilians are outrageous,” the White House said.

More than 140 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, have died so far in Israel's Gaza offensive. Five Israelis, including one soldier, have also been killed.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, trying to calm tensions over Gaza, flew from Israel to Cairo to meet Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, who is spearheading ceasefire negotiations.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Ari Rabinovitch and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Israel and Hamas agree on cease-fire


Israel and Hamas agreed on Wednesday to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt on the eighth day of intensive Israeli fire on the Gaza Strip and militant rocket attacks out of the enclave, Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian sources said.

First word of the truce came from a Palestinian official who has knowledge of the negotiations in Cairo, where U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also pursuing peace efforts.

Asked whether a ceasefire deal had been reached, an Egyptian official in Cairo said: “Yes, and Egypt will announce it.”

Egyptian state TV had earlier said a news conference would be broadcast from President Mohamed Mursi's palace shortly.

Israeli sources said Israel had agreed to a truce, but would not lift its blockade of the Palestinian territory, which is run by the Islamist Hamas movement.

All the sources declined to be named or to give further details of the arrangements hammered out in Cairo.

More than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed in the fighting that began last Wednesday.

The ceasefire, if confirmed, was forged despite a bus bomb explosion that wounded 15 Israelis in Tel Aviv earlier in the day and despite more Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip.

After talks in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Clinton held a second meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before travelling to Egypt for discussions with Mursi, whose country has led mediation efforts.

In Tel Aviv, targeted by rockets from Gaza that either did not hit the city or were shot down by Israel's Iron Dome interceptor system, 15 people were wounded when a bus was blown up near the Defence Ministry and military headquarters.

The blast, which police said was caused by a bomb placed on the vehicle, touched off celebratory gunfire from militants in Gaza and had threatened to complicate truce efforts. It was the first serious bombing in Israel's commercial capital since 2006.

In Gaza, Israel struck more than 100 targets, including a cluster of Hamas government buildings, in attacks that medical officials said killed 10 people, among them a 2-year-old boy.

Israel's best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper had reported an emerging outline of a ceasefire agreement that called for Egypt to announce a 72-hour ceasefire followed by further talks on long-term understandings.

Under the proposed document, which the newspaper said neither party would be required to sign, Israel would hold its fire, end attacks against top militants and promise to examine ways to ease its blockade of Gaza, controlled by Hamas Islamists who do not recognize the Jewish state's right to exist.

Hamas, the report said, would pledge not to strike any Israeli target and ensure other Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip also stop their attacks.

Israel has carried out more than 1,500 strikes since the offensive began with the killing of a top Hamas commander and with declared aim of deterring Hamas from launching rocket attacks that have long disrupted life in its southern towns.

Medical officials in Gaza said 146 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, including 36 children, have been killed in Israel's offensive. Nearly 1,400 rockets have been fired into Israel, killing four civilians and a soldier, the military said.

Additional reporting by Ori Lewis and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo

Obama commends Netanyahu on ceasefire pledge


President Barack Obama on Wednesday spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and commended him for agreeing to the Egyptian government's ceasefire plan in the Middle East, the White House said.

Israel and Hamas agreed on Wednesday to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt to end eight days of fighting in the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis.

“The president expressed his appreciation for the Prime Minister's efforts to work with the new Egyptian government to achieve a sustainable ceasefire and a more durable solution to this problem,” a White House statement said.

Obama reiterated his commitment to Israel's security and also said he was committed to seeking funds for joint missile defense programs.

Clinton says ceasefire comes at ‘critical’ moment


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday the ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza had come at a crucial time for countries of the Middle East.

“This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone for regional stability and peace,” she said at a joint news conference with her Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamel Amr.

She also thanked Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Morsi for his mediation efforts and pledged to work with partners in the region “to consolidate this progress, improve conditions for the people of Gaza, provide security for the people of Israel”.

Reporting by Shaimaa Fayed in Cairo and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Michael Roddy

Gaza truce deal has Egyptian ‘guarantees,’ an Egyptian source


A ceasefire deal agreed between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza comes with Egyptian “guarantees,” an Egyptian source close to truce talks told Reuters on Wednesday.

The source also said the truce included an end to “assassinations” and “incursions” and would ease movement of Palestinians. Egypt mediated the deal.

Reporting by Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair

Rockets pound Israel for seventh day


More than 80 rockets were fired at southern Israel in the seventh day since the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, including two aimed at Jerusalem.

An air raid siren sounded in Jerusalem on Tuesday afternoon; two rockets fell in the Gush Etzion area south of Jerusalem. Hamas claimed responsibility for the rockets aimed at Jerusalem.

Shortly before the alarm, a rocket struck a building in the Eshkol Regional Council, reportedly injuring several people. Rockets also hit a home in Netivot and damaged homes in Sderot and Beersheva.

An Israeli reserve soldier was injured by a rocket that fell in the Eshkol Regional Council.

A volley of 16 rockets was fired Tuesday toward Beersheva. One hit the road in front of a bus, damaging the bus, which the passengers had exited due to the air raid siren. A second rocket hit a house and a third hit a parked care. Nine of the 16 rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that on Tuesday, it targeted 11 terrorist squads involved in firing rockets toward Israel and planting explosive devices at the border. The IDF also bombed 30 underground rocket launchers and a hiding place for senior terror operatives that was used to store weapons and ammunition, the IDF spokesman said. Overnight, the IDF said it targeted 100 terror sites in Gaza, including underground rocket launchers, terror tunnels and ammunition storage facilities.

“The sites that were targeted were positively identified by precise intelligence over the course of several months,” the IDF statement said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reportedly will land in Israel on Tuesday to encourage a cease-fire. She also will meet with Palestinian Authority leaders, but no one from Hamas, Haaretz reported. United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon also arrived in Israel on Tuesday to meet with Israeli leaders.

Islamic Jihad leaders killed in strike, Hamas’ Maashal shuns stop to bombings


As Hamas' leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, brushed off a halt to bombings, Israeli airstrikes hit a Gaza media center and killed several leaders of Islamic Jihad.

The Israel Air Force's strike Monday evening — the second on the center in two days — killed Ramaz Harab, a top leader of Islamic Jihad's military wing, the Al Quds Brigades. At least three other Islamic Jihad leaders were in the building when it was hit, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Hamas' main television station, Al Aksa, is located on the top floor of the high-rise building.

In Cairo, meanwhile, Maashal said Monday during an hourlong news conference, “Whoever started the war must end it.”

He told reporters that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested a cease-fire, a claim that Israel has denied, according to reports.

Maashal said there is a new spirit of cooperation among Palestinian factions due to the Israeli operation, which began on Nov. 14.

“Israel is the common enemy. Confrontation with the enemy is our moment of truth,” he said. “We must end the political divide and unite around common institutions and around resistance to Israel. Our enemy cannot be treated with words, but only by force. No concessions should be made with Israel, given the new atmosphere in the Arab world.”

More diplomacy to try to halt Israel-Gaza fighting


Hostilities between Islamist militants and Israel entered a sixth day on Monday as diplomatic efforts were set to intensify to try to stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and Israeli air strikes on Gaza.

International pressure for a ceasefire seemed certain to mount after the deadliest single incident in the flare-up on Sunday claimed the lives of at least 11 Palestinian civilians, including four children.

Three people, including two children, were killed and 30 others were injured in the latest air strike before dawn on Monday on a family home in the Zeitoun neighborhood in Gaza City, medical officials said. The Israeli military had no immediate comment and was checking.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was due to arrive in Cairo to add his weight to the truce efforts. Egypt has taken the lead in trying to broker a ceasefire and its officials met the parties on Sunday.

Israeli media said a delegation from Israel had been to Cairo for talks on ending the fighting, although a government spokesman declined to comment on the matter.

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi met Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, and Ramadan Shallah of Islamic Jihad as part of the mediation efforts, but a statement did not say if talks were conclusive.

Izzat Risheq, a close aide to Meshaal, wrote in a Facebook message that Hamas would agree to a ceasefire only after Israel “stops its aggression, ends its policy of targeted assassinations and lifts the blockade of Gaza”.

Listing Israel's terms, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon wrote on Twitter: “If there is quiet in the south and no rockets and missiles are fired at Israel's citizens, nor terrorist attacks engineered from the Gaza Strip, we will not attack.”

Israel withdrew settlers from Gaza in 2005 and two years later Hamas took control of the impoverished enclave, which the Israelis have kept under blockade.

The 11 Palestinian civilians were apparently killed during an Israeli attack on a militant, which brought a three-storey house crashing down on them.

Gaza health officials have said 78 Palestinians, 23 of them children and several women, have been killed in Gaza since Israel's offensive began. Hundreds have been wounded.

GRAVE CONCERN

Ban expressed grave concern in a statement before setting off for the region. He will visit Israel on Tuesday.

“I am deeply saddened by the reported deaths of more than ten members of the Dalu family… (and) by the continuing firing of rockets against Israeli towns, which have killed several Israeli civilians. I strongly urge the parties to cooperate with all efforts led by Egypt to reach an immediate ceasefire,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had assured world leaders that Israel was doing its utmost to avoid causing civilian casualties in the military showdown with Hamas.

Gaza militants launched dozens of rockets into Israel and targeted its commercial capital, Tel Aviv, for a fourth day on Sunday. Israel's “Iron Dome” missile shield shot down all three rockets.

In scenes recalling Israel's 2008-2009 winter invasion of Gaza, tanks, artillery and infantry have massed in field encampments along the sandy, fenced-off border with Gaza and military convoys moved on roads in the area.

Israel has authorized the call-up of 75,000 reservists, although there was no immediate sign when or whether they might be needed in a ground invasion.

Israel's operation has so far drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called its right to self-defense, but there have also been a growing number of appeals to seek an end to the hostilities.

Netanyahu said Israel was ready to widen its offensive.

“We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the terrorist organizations and the Israel Defence Forces are prepared for a significant expansion of the operation,” he said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, but gave no further details.

The Israeli military said 544 rockets fired from Gaza have hit Israel since Wednesday, killing three civilians and wounding dozens. Some 302 rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome and 99 failed to reach Israel and landed inside the Gaza Strip.

Israel's declared goal is to deplete Gaza arsenals and force Hamas to stop rocket fire that has bedeviled Israeli border towns for years. The rockets now have greater range, putting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within their reach.

The southern resort city of Eilat was apparently added to the list of targets when residents said they heard an explosion thought to be a rocket, but it caused no damage or casualties, police said.

Eilat is thought to be well out of the range of any rocket in possession of Hamas or any other Gaza group. But Palestinian militants have in the recent past fired rockets at Eilat and its surroundings, using Egypt's Sinai desert as a launch site.

SWORN ENEMIES

Hamas and other groups in Gaza are sworn enemies of the Jewish state which they refuse to recognize and seek to eradicate, claiming all Israeli territory as rightfully theirs.

Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian Territories in 2006 but a year later, after the collapse of a unity government under President Mahmoud Abbas the Islamist group seized control of Gaza in a brief and bloody civil war with forces loyal to Abbas.

Abbas then dismissed the Hamas government led by the group's leader Ismail Haniyeh but he refuses to recognize Abbas' authority and runs Gazan affairs.

While it is denounced as a terrorist organization in the West, Hamas enjoys widespread support in the Arab world, where Islamist parties are on the rise.

Western-backed Abbas and Fatah hold sway in the West Bank from their seat of government in the town of Ramallah. The Palestinians seek to establish an independent state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Christopher Wilson

Israel hits Hamas government buildings, reservists mobilized


Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the prime minister's office, after Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border salvoes, firing a rocket at Israel's biggest city Tel Aviv for the third straight day. Police said it was destroyed in mid-air by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed hours earlier, and no one was injured.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister – and struck a police headquarters.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a show of Arab solidarity.

Officials in Gaza said 41 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians including eight children and a pregnant woman, had been killed since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unraveled over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.

Israel uncorked its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years. The salvoes recently intensified, and are now displaying greater range.

The operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, along with appeals to both sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel's Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas says it is committed to continued confrontation with Israel and is eager not to seem any less resolute than smaller, more radical groups that have emerged in Gaza in recent years.

The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the tiny, densely populated coastal territory.

RESERVE TROOP QUOTA DOUBLED

At a late night session on Friday, Israel's cabinet decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said.

The move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone on Saturday, and around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.

After air raid sirens sounded, witnesses saw two white plumes rise into the sky over the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and heard an explosion when the incoming rocket was hit.

The anti-missile battery had been due to take delivery of its fifth Iron Dome battery early next year but it was rushed into service near Tel Aviv after rockets were launched toward the city on Thursday and Friday. Those attacks caused no damage or casualties.

In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually placid pace of life in the holy city.

In Gaza, some families abandoned their homes – some of them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets – and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.

ISRAEL'S GAZA TARGETS

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also hit and totally destroyed early on Saturday. Rescuers said at least 30 people were pulled from the rubble.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama commended Egypt's efforts to help defuse the Gaza violence in a call to Morsi on Friday, the White House said in a statement, and underscored his hope of restoring stability there.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Egypt's Islamist government, freely elected after U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell to a popular uprising last year, is allied with Hamas but Cairo is also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed options for “de-escalating” the situation, the White House said, adding that the president “reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it would risk major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state's existence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Gaza militants use Egyptian-brokered ceasefire to launch 21 rockets into Israel


Palestinian militants reportedly fired 21 rockets from Gaza into Israel during a unilateral ceasefire called by Israel to facilitate a visit to Gaza by Egypt’s prime minister.

Israel briefly suspended its attacks on Gaza on Friday — the third day of Israel’s operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas — at the behest of Egypt ahead of an impromptu solidarity visit by Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil, an Israeli official told the news site Ynet.

Four of the rockets fired during the Egyptian premier’s visit were intercepted over Ashdod by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. The remaining 17 landed in and around Ashkelon and Kiryat Gat, Ynet site reported. Israeli aircraft resumed their attacks late Friday morning.

So far, the exchanges have killed 19 Palestinians, including two children and Ahmed Jabari, a top terrorist chief, and three Israelis. Israel launched the operation in retaliation for intensified rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.

According to Ynet, the Israeli defense ministry will deliver a fifth Iron Dome battery to the Israel Air Force for deployment on Saturday. Iron Dome intercepted 140 rockets since the operation began on Wednesday, according to NRG, the news site of Ma’ariv.

Early on Friday morning, before the visit, two Katyusha Grad rockets from Gaza hit Ashdod and another exploded in a house in Sha’ar Hanegev regional council, NRG reported. No one was injured in the barrage. Iron Dome intercepted five Katyushas destined for Be’er Sheva and another five hit unpopulated areas.

Later Friday, two rockets launched from Gaza reached the Tel Aviv area, at least the third and fourth to do so since Wednesday. There were no reports of injuries or damage. Hamas claimed responsibility for firing the rockets.

On Thursday evening, Israel Air Force aircraft hit some 250 targets in the Gaza Strip. One of the targets, according to the Jerusalem Post, was the home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. He was reportedly not hurt.

The IDF is drafting 16,000 reserves troops in possible preparation for a ground incursion into Gaza, Army Radio reported. According to previous reports, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had asked the cabinet to approve drafting 30,000 troops.

Since operation Pillar of Defense began on November 14, the IDF killed 15 Palestinians in Gaza, including three children and seven militants, AP reported.

On Friday, Israel deployed thousands of police officers at Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a dite holy to both Muslims and Jews, in preparation for disturbances during Friday prayers by Muslims.

Israel requests reservists after rockets target cities


Israeli ministers were on Friday asked to endorse the call-up of up to 75,000 reservists after Palestinian militants nearly hit Jerusalem with a rocket for the first time in decades and fired at Tel Aviv for a second day.

The rocket attacks were a challenge to Israel's Gaza offensive and came just hours after Egypt's prime minister, denouncing what he described as Israeli aggression, visited the enclave and said Cairo was prepared to mediate.

Israel's armed forces announced that a highway leading to the Gaza Strip and two roads bordering the enclave would be off-limits to civilian traffic until further notice.

Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the border area on Friday, and the military said it had already called 16,000 reservists to active duty.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened senior cabinet ministers in Tel Aviv after the rockets struck to decide on widening the Gaza campaign.

Political sources said ministers were asked to approve the mobilisation of up to 75,000 reservists, in what could be preparation for a possible ground operation.

No decision was immediately announced and some commentators speculated in the Israeli media the move could be psychological warfare against Gaza's Hamas rulers. A quota of 30,000 reservists had been set earlier.

Israel had endured months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza wehn the violence escaleted on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.   Hamas stepped up rocket attacks in response.

Israeli police said a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the Jerusalem area, outside the city, on Friday.

It was the first Palestinian rocket since 1970 to reach the vicinity of the holy city, which Israel claims as its capital, and was likely to spur an escalation in its three-day old air war against militants in Gaza.

Rockets nearly hit Tel Aviv on Thursday for the first time since Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired them during the 1991 Gulf War. An air raid siren rang out on Friday when the commercial centre was targeted again. Motorists crouched next to cars, many with their hands protecting their heads, while pedestrians scurried for cover in building stairwells.

The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv strikes have so far caused no casualties or damage, but could be political poison for Netanyahu, a conservative favoured to win re-election in January on the strength of his ability to guarantee security.

“The Israel Defence Forces will continue to hit Hamas hard and are prepared to broaden the action inside Gaza,” Netanyahu said before the rocket attacks on the two cities.

Asked about Israel massing forces for a possible Gaza invasion, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: “The Israelis should be aware of the grave results of such a raid and they should bring their body bags.”

Officials in Gaza said 28 Palestinians had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air offensive with the declared aim of stemming surges of rocket strikes that have disrupted life in southern Israeli towns.

The Palestinian dead include 12 militants and 16 civilians, among them eight children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday. A Hamas source said the Israeli air force launched an attack on the house of Hamas's commander for southern Gaza which resulted in the death of two civilians, one a child.

SOLIDARITY VISIT

A solidarity visit to Gaza by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, whose Islamist government is allied with Hamas but also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, had appeared to open a tiny window to emergency peace diplomacy.

Kandil said: “Egypt will spare no effort … to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce.”

But a three-hour truce that Israel declared for the duration of Kandil's visit never took hold. Israel said 66 rockets launched from the Gaza Strip hit its territory on Friday and a further 99 were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Israel denied Palestinian assertions that its aircraft struck while Kandil was in the enclave.

Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent said the army's Homefront Command had told municipal officials to make civil defence preparations for the possibility that fighting could drag on for seven weeks. An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

The Gaza conflagration has stoked the flames of a Middle East already ablaze with two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to leap across borders.

It is the biggest test yet for Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi, a veteran Islamist politician from the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected this year after last year's protests ousted military autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are spiritual mentors of Hamas, yet Mursi has also pledged to respect Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, seen in the West as the cornerstone of regional security. Egypt and Israel both receive billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to underwrite their treaty.

Mursi has vocally denounced the Israeli military action while promoting Egypt as a mediator, a mission that his prime minister's visit was intended to further.

A Palestinian official close to Egypt's mediators told Reuters Kandil's visit “was the beginning of a process to explore the possibility of reaching a truce. It is early to speak of any details or of how things will evolve”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-2009, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

Tunisia's foreign minister was due to visit Gaza on Saturday “to provide all political support for Gaza” the spokesman for the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, said in a statement.

The United States asked countries that have contact with Hamas to urge the Islamist movement to stop its rocket attacks.

Hamas refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist. By contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the nearby West Bank, does recognise Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Abbas's supporters say they will push ahead with a plan to have Palestine declared an “observer state” rather than a mere “entity” at the United Nations later this month.

Egypt’s Morsi condemns Israel, orders prime minister to Gaza


President Mohamed Morsi condemned Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip as unacceptable aggression on Thursday and ordered Egypt's prime minister to visit the besieged enclave in a show of support for the Palestinians.

Facing his biggest test since becoming Egypt's first popularly elected president this year, Morsi – whose roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood – has to balance the need to show solidarity with fellow Islamists running Gaza with the country's dependence on about $2 billion a year in U.S. aid.

“We are in contact with the people of Gaza and with Palestinians and we stand by them until we stop the aggression,” Morsi said in a televised address. “The Israelis must realise that this aggression is unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region.”

A cabinet source said the prime minister and intelligence chief would visit Gaza on Friday to meet officials from Hamas, which runs Gaza, and show support to Palestinians. Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said the health minister and some of Morsi's assistants would accompany the prime minister.

Egypt has already recalled its ambassador to Israel and appealed to the UN Security Council to end the fighting in which 16 Palestinians, five of them children, and three Israelis have been killed.

But sending a high-level delegation would raise the stakes – potentially forcing Israel to choose between suspending its shelling of Gaza or risking the lives of senior officials from a country with which it signed a peace treaty in 1979.

A senior Brotherhood source close to the presidency told Reuters Morsi considered the prime minister's trip to Gaza in the midst of Israeli strikes a “heroic and historic move” that showed the presidency taking strides in its foreign policy.

“The timing of the visit is very important because it shows the new presidency is sending its head of government to Gaza,” the source said.

NATIONWIDE PROTESTS

Morsi had earlier looked more subdued and ill-at-ease than usual when he appeared on television to tell Egyptians about Cairo's response to the air strikes which began on Wednesday.

It was the first time he mentioned Israel by name in a public address. Ties between the two neighbours were never warm but have cooled further since Morsi's predecessor Hosni Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally, was deposed in a street revolt last year.

Morsi faces an uncomfortable dilemma in his relations with Israel. While keen to acknowledge widespread popular antipathy to the Jewish state, he also needs to persuade Western powers that they need not fear an Egypt governed by Islamists.

The Brotherhood describes Israel as a racist and expansionist state, although Morsi has pledged to respect the peace treaty that ended a succession of wars with Israel.

The head of the Brotherhood, the country's most organised group, called for nationwide protests to support the people of Gaza. Demonstrations were also planned for Friday.

Dozens of youths protested in front of the Arab League headquarters in Cairo and burned Israeli flags, chanting: “We will not give in, no matter how much the brutality grows.” Protesters in the port city of Alexandria also burned Israeli flags.

Morsi said he had spoken by phone with U.S. President Barack Obama and discussed “ways to reach calm and end the aggression”.

He said he told Obama of “how keen we are (to maintain) relations with the United States but also our absolute rejection of this aggression and the spilling of blood and the blockade of Palestinians”.

He said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had promised to relay his demand for an end to the violence to the Israelis.

Timeline: Israel and Hamas in repeated conflict


Israel and Hamas have been in regular conflict since the rise to prominence of the Palestinian Islamist group, created in 1987 at the start of the first Intifada uprising against Israeli occupation. Here is a timeline of some of the key moments.

March 22, 2004 – After a wave of Hamas suicide bombings in Israeli cities, an Israeli missile kills Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the Hamas movement.

April 17 – Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, the co-founder of Hamas and Yassin's successor, is killed by Israeli missile.

Sept. 1, 2005 – Israeli forces complete a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, captured from Egypt in the 1967 Middle East war, abandoning settlements and leaving the densely populated coastal area under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Jan. 25, 2006 – Hamas wins majority of seats in Palestinian legislative election. Israel and United States cut off aid to Palestinians because Hamas refuses to renounce violence and recognise Israel.

June 25 – Hamas militants launch raid into Israel from Gaza, killing two soldiers and capturing conscript Gilad Shalit.

June 28 – Israeli troops invade the Gaza Strip, but fail to find Shalit.

Nov 26 – Ceasefire in Gaza announced, ends five months of Israeli air strikes and incursions that fail to free Shalit.

June 14, 2007 – Hamas takes over Gaza in brief civil war with Fatah forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Rockets regularly fired into southern Israel.

April 24, 2008 – Hamas leader offers Israel six-month truce in Gaza but says fate of Shalit separate issue. Talks fail to make progress but ceasefire eventually agreed. However, many rocket attacks on southern Israel recorded during truce period.

Dec 19 – Fragile six-month ceasefire expires as they fail to agree on terms to extend truce.

Dec 27 – Israel launches 22-day military offensive in the Gaza Strip after Palestinians fire rockets at southern Israeli town of Sderot. A b out 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis are killed.

Jan 18, 2009 – Israel and Hamas cease fire in Gaza.

April 9, 2011 – The Israeli military kills top Hamas militant Tayser Abu Snima in a raid, saying he was “directly and physically involved” in Shalit's capture.

Oct 11, 2011 – Israeli and Hamas officials say a deal has been reached to swap Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Swap takes place on Oct. 18

March 12, 2012 – Four days of violence between Israel and Gazan militants leaves at least 25 Palestinians dead and 80 wounded. Eight people in Israel wounded. The exchanges began after two chiefs of a smaller faction were killed in an Israeli strike.

June 23 – Israel says Hamas and other groups fire more than 150 rockets at it in a week. Retaliatory airstrikes kill at least 2 Palestinians

Oct 8 – Hamas and other groups fire more than 55 rockets and mortars at southern Israel. At least one militant killed in Israeli airstrike.

Nov 13 – Three Palestinian militants and at least four civilians die in new round of violence. More than 115 rockets fired into southern Israel. Israeli army says more than 760 rockets have hit Israel since the start of the year.

Nov 14 – Israel kills Hamas's military chief of staff; launch widespread air offensive. Warn of possible ground attack.

Egypt condemns Israel attacks on Gaza, demands halt


Egypt's foreign ministry condemned on Wednesday a series of Israeli strikes that killed a Hamas top military commander in the Gaza Strip and called for an immediate halt to the attacks.

The attacks came despite signs that Egypt had managed to broker a truce between Israel and Palestinian militants after a five-day surge in violence which saw more than 100 missiles fired out of Gaza and repeated Israeli strikes on the enclave.

Islamist Hamas said Ahmed Al-Jaabari, who ran the organization's armed wing Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, was killed along with a passenger when their car was targeted by an Israeli missile. A hospital spokesman in Gaza said so far that four were killed and 10 people had been wounded.

“Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr condemned the series of air strikes that Israel is currently conducting against Gaza Strip and which led to the killing of Ahmed Al-Jaabari,” said the statement released by Egypt's foreign ministry.

“He called on Israel to stop its strikes on Gaza Strip immediately,” the statement said adding that any further escalation from Israel “could have negative repercussions on the security and stability of the region”.

The statement said the Egyptian minister considered the “Israeli escalation to be very dangerous”.

Egypt's new Islamist President Mohamed Mursi who hails from the FJP, the political wing of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood group, has since his election last June strengthened the relationship between Egypt and Hamas, the political front of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood.

The FJP issued a similar condemnation statement.

“The Freedom and Justice Party stresses its full condemnation to the Israeli assignation operation against Al-Qassam leader Ahmed Al-Jaabari,” a FJP statement said calling for a quick Arab and international reaction.

“Israel's return to the policy of assignation of leaders from the Palestinian struggle groups shows that the Israeli occupation wants to drag the region towards instability,” the FJP statement added.

“But the occupying state has to understand that the changes the Arab region, and especially Egypt, have witnessed will not permit that the Palestinian people be put under the hold of the Israeli offence in the same way as the past.”

Some Arab states, including Egypt, have undergone changes that have seen a strong rise of Islamist leaders after popular uprisings that ousted authoritarian rulers.

Reporting by Ayman Samir, Ali Abdelatti and Yasmine Saleh, writing by Yasmine Saleh, editing by Michael Roddy

Homs shelled as Syria demands ‘neutral’ U.N. mission


Syria challenged the United Nations chief over the size and scope of a U.N. truce monitoring mission on Wednesday, resisting a larger presence as its army shelled targets in the city of Homs in violation of the ceasefire.

Despite the seven-day-old truce agreement between government and rebel forces, explosions rocked the battered Khalidiyah quarter of Homs as the army resumed what has become a daily barrage of heavy mortar shelling, and plumes of black smoke drifted over the rooftops.

In northern Idlib province, six members of the security forces were killed by a bomb placed by an “armed terrorist group”, state news agency SANA said. It was the second such attack in two days.

While the truce has held in some parts of Syria since President Bashar al-Assad pledged to enforce it last week, in strong opposition areas such as Homs, Hama, Idlib and Deraa, the army has kept up attacks on rebels, using heavy weapons in violation of the pledge by Damascus to pull back.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told a news conference in Beijing that no more than 250 truce monitors were needed, and they should come from what he called “neutral” countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all of which have been more sympathetic to Assad than the West and the Arab League states.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was due to present proposals for the next phase of the mission on Wednesday to the Security Council. He says more monitors are needed for credible supervision of the truce in a country the size of Syria in the 13th month of a conflict marked by extreme violence and over 10,000 deaths.

An advance party of a half a dozen U.N. peacekeepers in blue berets, led by Colonel Ahmed Himmiche of Morocco, toured towns near Damascus on Wednesday in two white U.N. Land Cruisers with a Syrian police escort.

In Erbin their convoy was mobbed by anti-government protesters who chanted demands to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army. A banner was plastered on one U.N. car reading: “The butcher continues killings. The observers continue observing, and the people continue with their revolution. We only bow to God.”

With the flashpoint cities in Syria scattered over several hundred kilometers, Ban said he had asked the European Union if it can supply helicopters and planes to make the proposed monitoring mission rapidly and independently mobile, but Moualem said Syria would supply air transport if necessary.

A political source in neighboring Lebanon said Damascus has already refused the use of U.N. helicopters.

The West has shown no desire to intervene militarily or push for the sort of robust peacekeeping mission that might require 50,000 troops or more. Russia and China, Syria’s powerful friends on the Security Council, have made clear they would block a U.N. mandate to use force. They are likely to back Damascus as the terms of the mission are thrashed out later this week.

Assad says Syria is under attack by foreign-backed terrorist and that for their own safety, the unarmed observers would have to coordinate every step of their operation with Syrian security to protect them from “armed gangs”.

STILL NO PULLBACK

The rebel Free Syrian Army fighting to topple Assad says it will stop shooting if he keeps his pledge to U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan to withdraw tanks, heavy weapons and troops from urban areas, which critics say he clearly has not done since the truce took effect a week ago.

Apart from the shelling of targets in Homs, the city at the heart of the revolt, troops have swept towns and villages in raids to arrest suspected opponents of Assad. Activists say scores of people have been killed since the ceasefire officially came into force last Thursday.

Syria’s official news agency SANA reported that four law enforcement members and a civilian were killed on Tuesday when “an armed terrorist group threw a bomb at a bus” in Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city after the capital, Damascus.

It said terrorists were attacking and killing loyalist troops in their homes and kidnapping judges.

Internet video showed what anti-Assad activists said was renewed shelling of Homs shortly after dawn on Wednesday. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group opposed to Assad, reported explosions and heavy gunfire in the southern city of Deraa early on Wednesday. It confirmed the five killed by a bomb in Aleppo.

ADVANCE PARTY

Ban said on Tuesday that the ceasefire was being “generally observed”, though there was still violence. He said the 250 observers Assad will accept would be “not enough, considering the current situation and the vastness of the country”.

Annan delivered a status report to Arab League ministers, who called on Assad to let the U.N. observers do their job.

“We fully support Mr Annan and his six-point plan, but sadly, the killing still goes on,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr al-Thani told reporters after the meeting. “We are fearful that the regime is playing for time. We expressed this to Mr Annan.”

Equipment for the mission, including vehicles, is already being transported to Syria via Beirut from a U.N. logistics base in Brindisi, Italy.

Diplomats say Annan’s main aim is to get a U.N. mission on the ground backed by Syria’s supporters Russia and China, even if it is not big enough at first to do the job.

TIME TO ARM THE REBELS?

The mission must have Syrian consent, and Moualem said “this commitment does not cancel out the right to self defense and appropriate response against any attack on government forces, infrastructure, civilians and private or state property”.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia say it is time to arm the Free Syrian Army with weapons to combat Syria’s powerful, Russian-armed forces, but other Arab League states say this would tip the crisis into all-out civil war, threatening the wider region.

Russia is also critical of Western and Arab states backing the Syrian opposition-in-exile in the “Friends of Syria” group.

France said it would host a foreign ministers meeting of the group on Thursday in Paris, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to discuss the fragile ceasefire.

Western sanctions have halved Syria’s foreign reserves and should be stepped up to force Damascus to comply with the U.N.-backed peace plan, France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told officials from 57 countries meeting in Paris.

Additional reporting by Ayat Basma and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Will Waterman

West pushes U.N. Syria vote despite Russian criticism


Western powers brushed aside Russian criticism of a U.S.-drafted Security Council resolution authorizing an advance team of U.N. observers to monitor Syria’s fragile ceasefire and said on Friday they hoped to put it to a vote this weekend.

The U.N. missions of Britain, France and Germany said the U.S.-drafted resolution was co-sponsored by Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Morocco, the sole Arab nation on the council.

The draft, obtained by Reuters, calls for the initial deployment of up to 30 unarmed U.N. observers to Syria in line with a request by U.N.-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who had criticized an earlier version of the U.S. text, presented the 15-nation council with his own draft that Moscow would prefer to vote on.

“We have put together a shorter version of (the U.S.) text,” Churkin told reporters after closed-door discussions on Syria. “We had this understanding yesterday that it should be to the point, pragmatic, specific about putting in boots on the ground, (an) advance party of the monitoring team.”

Several diplomats said negotiations with Russia to find mutually acceptable language were slow and difficult. They said the council was unlikely to reach an agreement on Friday and they would likely reconvene on Saturday after delegations have had a chance to receive instructions from their capitals.

U.N. diplomats say Syrian ally Russia supports Annan’s peace efforts but is working hard to shield Damascus from what it sees as a Western push for Libya-style “regime change.” Russia and China have vetoed two resolutions condemning President Bashar al-Assad’s 13-month assault on anti-government protesters.

The competing draft resolutions are a response to Annan’s request that the council move quickly to get the first members of an observer force, which will ultimately have up to 250 monitors, in Syria to lock in the fragile ceasefire.

Several Western diplomats said negotiations were focusing on the U.S. draft, not the Russian one.

U.N. OBSERVERS ON STAND-BY

Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the U.N.-Arab League envoy hoped the council would pass the resolution on Friday.

“The (U.N.) Department of Peacekeeping Operations is working around the clock to find the necessary number of troops for the full observer mission eventually,” he said.

“At the moment we have the advance team standing by to board planes and to get there, to get themselves on the ground as soon as possible,” he said.

A U.N.-backed ceasefire aimed at halting more than a year of bloodshed in Syria appeared to be holding on Thursday, but forces loyal to Assad fought rebels near the border with Turkey on Friday, threatening the truce.

The latest U.S. draft would have the council say Damascus should “ensure full, unimpeded, and immediate freedom of movement and access throughout Syria for all (observer) mission personnel as deemed necessary by the mission.” Russia’s draft, seen by Reuters, has deleted that paragraph.

The first U.S. draft had made a number of demands on the Syrian government and did not explicitly demand anything of the opposition. That, council diplomats said, annoyed Russia.

The new U.S. draft includes proposed Russian language about the rebels, saying the council “demands that all parties in Syria, including the opposition, immediately cease all armed violence in all its forms.”

It also has the council “condemning the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities, recalling that those responsible shall be held accountable.”

It ends with a vague threat of “further steps” by the council if Syria does not comply with the resolution.

Editing by Doina Chiacu and Mohammad Zargham

Israeli retaliatory strikes hit Gaza amid cease-fire


Despite a cease-fire that has held for about a day, Israel’s military struck two sites in Gaza in retaliation for attacks on Israel following a cease-fire announcement.

Israel’s Air Force fired on what it called two “terrorist activity sites” in northern Gaza early Wednesday morning, some 24 hours after the announcement of an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire.

A statement from the Israel Defense Forces said the attack was in response to rocket attacks from Gaza that struck Israel following the announcement. One of the seven rockets and mortars fired from Gaza landed in a parking lot in Netivot, injuring one person and damaging property.

Also Wednesday, Palestinian officials said an 8-year-old boy hurt in an Israeli attack Monday died of his injuries. A teenage boy had died in the same attack.

Terrorist groups in Gaza began launching a barrage of rockets at Israel on March 9 after Israel assassinated Zuhir Mussah Ahmed Kaisi, leader of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces believed Kaisi was planning a terrorist strike in Israel.

More than 200 rockets were fired from Gaza on Israel.

At least 27 Palestinians, including Wednesday’s death, a 14-year-old and three other civilians, were killed in the Israeli attacks. The majority of those killed were terrorists, including 14 from Islamic Jihad, according to the IDF.

At least eight Israelis and foreign workers in Israel have been wounded, two seriously, and dozens have been treated for shock, according to reports.

Schools that had been closed for three days in cities and towns including Beersheba, Ashkelon and Ashdod reopened on Wednesday, though in some communities up to half of the students did not show up.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Treasury in consultations with the Histadrut Labor Federation agreed to compensate employers and their employees for missed work due to the rocket fire.

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