Israel says Syrian government used chemical weapons during truce


Israel said on Tuesday that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons against civilians since the start of a ceasefire aimed at preparing the way for an end to the five-year civil war.

The truce, sponsored by Russia and the United States, began on Saturday and has been dogged by opposition charges of non-compliance by Damascus – something President Bashar al-Assad has denied. It does not apply to missions against jihadist rebels.

“The Syrians used military grade chemical weapons and lately have been using materials, chlorine, against civilians, including in these very days, after the supposed ceasefire, dropping barrels of chlorine on civilians,” Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a speech to a conference organized by the New Tech military and aviation group in Airport City, near Tel Aviv. He did not provide further details. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the Syria truce efforts on Sunday but said his country might still carry out attacks in the neighboring Arab state to thwart any threats to its security. 

A fact-finding mission of the global chemical weapons watchdog (OPCW) concluded in 2014 that the use of chlorine gas has been “systematic” in the Syrian civil war, even after the country surrendered its stockpile of toxic weapons.

Both sides have denied using chlorine “barrel” bombs, which the OPCW said are dropped out of helicopters. The Syrian air force is the only party in the conflict known to have helicopters.

A joint mission by the United Nations and the OPCW is currently investigating who is responsible for the chemical attacks.

Israel, Hamas reach unlimited cease-fire


Egypt announced a new cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian groups shortly after an Israeli struck by a Gaza mortar died of his wounds.

The official Egyptian News Agency announced Tuesday evening that the cease-fire would begin at 7 p.m.

In the hour leading up to the announced cease-fire, dozens of mortars and rockets were fired at southern Israel. One Israeli was killed and at least two more were seriously injured in the Eshkol region.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a televised speech at the start of a leadership meeting in Ramallah, said, “We announce the Palestinian leadership’s agreement to Egypt’s call for a comprehensive and lasting truce beginning at 7 p.m. today.”

Israeli Cabinet ministers reportedly were informed earlier in the evening that the cease-fire proposal had been accepted. The proposal did not require a Cabinet vote.

According to reports, the open-ended cease-fire would see the immediate opening of border crossings from Gaza into Israel and Egypt, and the expansion of Gaza’s fishing zone.

The second phase would begin in a month, with discussion of the construction of a Gaza seaport and the Israeli release of Hamas prisoners.

The sides have agreed to numerous cease-fires since Israel launched its military operation in Gaza early last month to stop rocket fire from the coastal strip.

Palestinians accuse Israel of violating Gaza truce


The Palestinian Interior Ministry in Gaza accused Israel on Friday of a cross-border shooting in violation of a truce that has largely held since getting off to a shaky start on Thursday.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said: “We have no knowledge of such an incident.”

The Palestinian ministry in the coastal territory dominated by Hamas Islamists said Israeli troops shot at houses east of the town of Khan Younis.

The cease-fire, renewed on Thursday for five days after a previous truce expired, has largely halted more than a month of fighting in which 1,945 Palestinians, many of them civilians, 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel were killed.

The truce got off to a rocky start with Israel launching an air raid early on Thursday in response to rocket fire from Gaza in violation of the earlier truce.

There were no reported casualties in any of these incidents.

The latest cease-fire, mediated by Egypt, gave the parties an additional five days, until late on Monday to come up with a comprehensive agreement to end the war in Gaza.

Negotiations hosted in Cairo were expected to reconvene on Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet debated the emerging deal at a meeting held behind closed-doors on Friday, after a protest by 10,000 Israelis in Tel Aviv, angry at the war's inconclusive results and the prospect of facing more rocket fire from Gaza once the truce comes to an end.

An Israeli official said after Friday's meeting that any deal struck in Egypt had to “provide clearly for security arrangements” for Israel. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to elaborate.

Few precise details of the indirect negotiations have emerged, but the broad outlines are well known: the Palestinians want an end to Israel's blockade of Gaza, an extension of the strip's maritime and security boundaries and the building of a sea port and reopening of an airport in the enclave.

For their part, the Israelis want an end to rocket fire from Gaza, the full demilitarisation of the territory, and for the Palestinian Authority headed by Western-allied President Mahmoud Abbas to take over responsibility for managing Gaza's 12 km (7.5 mile) border with Egypt at Rafah, an effort to prevent the smuggling of weapons and other military-use equipment.

Negotiations progress as cease-fire holds


Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas are moving forward as both sides adhere to a renewed cease-fire.

A Palestinian negotiator in Cairo reported agreement “on many points” Thursday, according to the French news agency AFP.

Rockets were fired from Gaza as a previous three-day truce expired at midnight Wednesday, and Israel responded with airstrikes over the coastal strip. But despite exchanging fire, the sides agreed to extend the truce for five days to continue negotiations in the Egyptian capital over an end to this round of conflict, which began July 8.

Hamas is demanding an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, an opening of border crossings with Israel and Egypt, and the construction of a seaport and airport. Israel is demanding that Hamas cease rocket fire and disarm. Egyptian mediators have proposed that Palestinian Authority forces man the border crossings.

BREAKING: Israeli police confirm rocket fired from Gaza landed in Southern Israel


Rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel two hours before the deadline of a 72-hour cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.

One rocket exploded Wednesday night in an unpopulated area of the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council, The Jerusalem Post reported. No damage or injuries were reported. Rocket sirens sounded in Ashkelon and surrounding areas.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army massed more troops along the Gaza border on Wednesday as the midnight deadline neared for the end of the temporary truce.

A news conference expected to be held by the Palestinian delegation to truce talks in Cairo at 9:30 p.m. reportedly was delayed until further notice.

Earlier Wednesday, the United States said it wanted a long-term cease-fire secured between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, but would settle for extending the temporary truce launched at midnight Monday if negotiators in the Egyptian capital cannot reach a larger accord by the deadline.

President Obama spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu by phone on Wednesday, urging Netanyahu to reach an agreement that would end the violence.

According to Israel’s Channel 2, the Israeli team returned home from the indirect negotiations in Cairo.

Little progress reported at Cairo truce talks


Negotiators at the Israel-Hamas truce talks in Cairo said they were still far from an agreement.

Palestinian officials said Tuesday that the current three-day cease-fire between the sides will be the final one unless Israel and Hamas make progress toward a truce. The cease-fire, which began Monday, is the second three-day truce between the sides after a month of fighting.

“We’re standing before a difficult negotiation,” Hamas deputy political leader Mousa Abu Marzook said, according to the Times of Israel. “The first truce passed without an acceptable achievement to note. This is the second and final truce. The seriousness right now is clear. What’s necessary is for the delegation to achieve what the Palestinian people wishes of it.”

Israeli negotiators also reported little progress at the negotiations. Israel has called for another three-day truce to allow negotiations to continue.

Hamas is demanding an end to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and the building of an airport and seaport, and Israel is demanding Gaza’s demilitarization. Palestinian negotiators, including representatives of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, reportedly rejected an Israeli offer of a seaport in exchange for the demilitarization.

 

 

Israelis, Palestinians begin new talks to end Gaza war


Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed indirect talks mediated by Egypt on Monday on ending a month-old Gaza war, Egypt's state news agency said, after a new 72-hour truce appeared to be holding.

The Israeli military said one rocket was launched at the Tel Aviv area, in Israel's commercial heartland, before the cease-fire began at 2100 GMT on Sunday and may have landed in the sea. Gaza's dominant Hamas group said it fired the missile.

A senior Israeli government official had said on Sunday Israeli negotiators, who had left Cairo on Friday hours before a previous three-day ceasefire expired, would return to Egypt to resume the talks only if the new truce held.

Hamas is demanding an end to Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the Gaza Strip and the opening of a seaport in the enclave – a project Israel says should be dealt with only in any future talks on a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians.

A month of war has killed 1,938 Palestinians and 67 Israelis while devastating wide tracts of densely populated Gaza, and Egypt's Foreign Ministry has urged both sides to work towards “a comprehensive and lasting cease-fire agreement”.

Gaza hospital officials say the Palestinian death toll has been mainly civilian since the July 8 launch of Israel's military campaign to quell Gaza rocket fire.

Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians, while heavy losses among civilians and the destruction of thousands of homes in Gaza have drawn international condemnation.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the new negotiations would be “the last chance” for an agreement. Israeli representatives are not meeting face-to-face with the Palestinian delegation because it includes Hamas, which Israel regards as a terrorist organization.

LONG-TERM TRUCE

Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a radio interview on Monday that disarming Gaza militants was crucial to sustain a long-term truce and he hoped this could be done by diplomacy rather than force.

“I certainly hope that there will be a diplomatic solution. If there will not be a diplomatic solution, I am convinced that sooner or later we will have to opt for a military solution of taking temporary control of Gaza to demilitarize it again,” he told Israel Radio.

Another sticking points in the Cairo talks has been Israel's demand for guarantees that Hamas would not use any reconstruction supplies sent to Gaza to build tunnels of the sort Palestinian fighters have used to infiltrate Israel.

Hamas has demanded an end to the economically stifling blockade of the enclave imposed by both Israel and Egypt, which also sees the Islamist movement as a security threat.

Israel has resisted easing access to Gaza, suspecting Hamas could then restock with weapons from abroad.

According to the United Nations, at least 425,000 displaced people in the Gaza Strip are in emergency shelters or staying with host families. Nearly 12,000 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged by Israeli attacks.

In Gaza, shops began to open and traffic was normal as some displaced families returned to the homes they had been forced to abandon during Israeli attacks, expressing hopes that this truce would last after a series of failed ceasefires.

“God knows if it is permanent,” said Abu Salama, a resident of Gaza's Shejaia district, as he and his family headed home on a donkey cart. “A truce, no truce, it is becoming like Tom and Jerry. We want a solution,” he said.

TURKISH SHIPS

The new three-day cease-fire won praise from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who hoped it might lead to a durable cease-fire.

Israeli air strikes and shelling on Sunday killed nine Palestinians in Gaza, medics said, in a third day of renewed fighting since the last truce ended.

One air strike destroyed the home of Gaza City's mayor, Nezar Hijazi, across the street from the Reuters bureau where reporters and cameramen took cover as the explosion occurred. There were no casualties in the attack because Israel telephoned warnings to residents in the house and neighboring buildings.

The Israeli military said it targeted 11 “terror squads” in Gaza, among them gunmen involved in or preparing to fire rockets.

Since the previous ceasefire expired, Palestinian rocket and mortar salvoes have focused on Israeli towns and communities near the Gaza frontier in what seemed a strategy of sapping morale without triggering another ground invasion of Gaza.

Residents of those communities, who had been assured by the military they could return home when last week's truce began, have accused Israeli authorities of misleading them.

Israeli tanks and infantry left the enclave on Tuesday after the army said it had completed its main mission of destroying more than 30 tunnels dug by militants for cross-border attacks.

Four wounded Palestinians were flown into Ankara for medical treatment on Monday, the first sign of Turkey's promised plan to evacuate thousands from the Gaza Strip.

A Turkish aid group said it would send ships again to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza, four years after Israeli commandos stormed its flotilla bound for the Palestinian territory and killed 10 people in fighting with activists on board.

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

Palestinian fighters raid Israel on Gaza ‘truce’ day


Palestinian fighters slipped into an Israeli village from the Gaza Strip and fought a gun battle with troops on Monday as an unofficial truce called for the Muslim Eid al-Fitr festival disintegrated.

The clash, in which Israeli television said five gunmen were killed and the Islamist Hamas movement said it had killed 10 Israeli soldiers, appeared to wreck international hopes of turning a brief lull in fighting into a longer-term ceasefire.

After the infiltration at Nahal Oz, a kibbutz collective village due east of Gaza City, the Israeli army warned thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes in areas around Gaza City. Such warnings usually precede retaliatory strikes.

As night fell over Gaza, army flares illuminated the sky and the sound of intense shelling could be heard.

The incident was not the only breach of the fragile truce. Eight children and two adults were killed by a blast at a park in northern Gaza and four Israelis were reported to have been killed by cross-border Palestinian mortar fire.

Residents blamed the park explosion, which also wounded 40 adults, on an Israeli airstrike, but Israel said a misfiring rocket launched by Hamas militants had hit the public garden in the Beach refugee camp.

Israeli media said four Israelis were killed by a mortar round fired out of Gaza in a separate incident. The military declined immediate comment.

Israeli forces had said they were firing only when fired upon while army engineers hunted infiltrator tunnels from the Gaza Strip's eastern frontier. They accused Palestinians of launching at least 17 rockets across the border.

Gaza's dominant Hamas Islamists had called for a pause in hostilities on Monday, the 21st day of their conflict with Israel, to coincide with Eid, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Israel initially balked, having abandoned its own offer to extend a 12-hour truce from Saturday as Palestinian rockets kept flying. However, calm gradually descended through the night with just the occasional exchange of fire heard until a series of blasts shook Gaza in the afternoon.

Pools of blood lay on the ground in the Beach refugee camp garden in the aftermath of one of the blasts.

“We came out of the mosque when I saw the children playing with their toy guns. Seconds later a missile landed,” said Munther Al-Derbi, a resident of the camp.

“May God punish … Netanyahu,” he said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At roughly the same time, another blast shook the grounds of Gaza's main Shifa hospital, without causing any casualties. Israel, which has previously accused Hamas fighters of hiding in the hospital, again blamed an errant militant missile.

PRESSURE

Foreign pressure on Netanyahu mounted on Sunday, with both U.S. President Barack Obama and the U.N. Security Council urging an immediate ceasefire that would allow relief to reach Gaza's 1.8 million Palestinians, followed by negotiations on a more durable cessation of hostilities. Israel wants guarantees Hamas will be stripped of its tunnels and rocket stocks. It worries the Palestinian Islamists will parlay the truce talks mediated by their friends in Qatar and Turkey into an easing of an Israeli-Egypt blockade on Gaza. Speaking to U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon on Monday before news of the border infiltration was announced, Netanyahu accused the Security Council of siding with Hamas. “The statement … relates to the needs of a murderous terrorist group that attacks Israeli civilians, and has no answer for Israel's security needs – among them a demilitarization of the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu said. “Israel accepted three U.N. proposals for humanitarian truces and Hamas violated them all,” his office quoted him as saying. Some 1,054 Gazans, most of them civilians, have died in the three-week-old conflict. Israel has lost 43 soldiers to Gaza fighting and another three civilians have been killed by Palestinian shelling.

In New York, Ban deplored what he described as a lack of resolve among all parties in the conflict.

“It's a matter of their political will. They have to show their humanity as leaders, both Israeli and Palestinian,” he told reporters. “Why these leaders are making their people to be killed by others? It's not responsible, (it's) morally wrong.”

Israeli officials were more reticent about Sunday's phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu in which the U.S. president appeared to link any Gaza demilitarization to a peace accord with the Palestinians that is nowhere on the horizon.

SHELLING

Israel signaled it would prefer a de facto halt to fighting rather than an agreement that would preserve Hamas's arsenals and shore up its status by improving Gaza's crippled economy.

“The situation now is an unlimited truce,” Israel's chief military spokesman, Brigadier General Motti Almoz, told Israel Radio on Monday. “The IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) is free to attack after any fire if there is any.”

Some residents in Gaza reported they had received a recorded telephone message on Monday which said in Arabic: “Listen Hamas, if you are still alive, you should know that if you continue, we will respond, we will respond violently.”

In another attempt at psychological warfare, Israel dropped leaflets over Gaza listing dozens of names of gunmen from Hamas and its ally, Islamic Jihad, that the military says it has killed since the start of the offensive.

An opinion poll broadcast by Channel 10 TV showed overwhelming Israeli public support for continuing the Gaza offensive until Hamas is “disarmed”.

Deputy Islamic Jihad chief Zeyad Al-Nakhala said mediation had made progress and the group was working with neighboring Egypt to craft a deal.

“We are days away from the end of the battle, the clouds will clear and you (Palestinians) will see victory,” he told Islamic Jihad's radio station Al-Quds, “We will not accept anything less than ending the blockade.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region last week to try to stem the bloodshed, his contacts with Hamas – which Washington formally shuns – facilitated by Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Tension between Netanyahu's government and Washington has flared over U.S. mediation efforts, adding yet another chapter to the prickly relations between the Israeli leader and Obama.

Repeated U.S.-led negotiations over 20 years have failed to broker a permanent deal. The most recent round collapsed in April, with Palestinians livid over Jewish settlement building in the West Bank and Israelis furious that Abbas had signed a unity pact with old foe Hamas. Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Atteya said Israel had not respected an ceasefire agreement brokered by Cairo that ended the last Gaza war in 2012 and it was time the blockade of the coastal enclave – also enforced by next-door Egypt – was lifted.

“We have worked with the U.S secretary of state and we were about to achieve substantial results, and the brothers in Hamas acted positively, but the one who rejected the Kerry proposal was Israel,” Al Atteya told Al-Jazeera TV.

The main U.N. agency in Gaza, UNRWA, said more than 167,000 displaced Palestinians had taken shelter in its schools and buildings, following repeated calls by Israel for civilians to evacuate whole neighbourhoods ahead of military operations.

Additional reporting by Amena Bakr in Doha; Writing by Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Paul Taylor

UN condemns Gaza rockets, alarmed by Israel ‘heavy response’


The United Nations condemned rocket fire into Israel from Gaza that ended a five hour humanitarian truce, but is “alarmed by Israel's heavy response,” U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman told the U.N. Security Council on Friday.

“Israel has legitimate security concerns, and we condemn the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza into Israel that ended yesterday's temporary ceasefire. But we are alarmed by Israel's heavy response,” Feltman told the emergency council session.

Israel intensified its land offensive in Gaza with artillery, tanks and gunboats on Friday and warned it could “significantly widen” an operation Palestinian officials said was killing ever greater numbers of civilians.

Editing by Bernadette Baum

Palestinians don’t expect much from Obama visit


Palestinian officials hope the upcoming visit by President Barack Obama will end the current deadlock in the peace process, but are skeptical that the visit will change the situation on the ground.

Speaking to reporters before a PLO Executive Committee meeting at his Ramallah compound, The Muqata, on Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the Obama visit this week but said that resuming negotiations with Israel requires that it freeze its building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem; and release Palestinian prisoners detained before the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Abbas also called for an international probe into the death on Saturday of a security prisoner detained by Israel; and improved conditions for other incarcerated Palestinians. He said that the Palestinian leadership doesn't want to see an escalation of the recent violence between Palestinians and Israeli security forces that has raged since the weekend, but rather seeks to reach a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Ahead of the Obama visit, a Palestinian official told The Media Line that the American president will not be presenting a proposal to the parties. Echoing pre-visit statements coming from Washington, the official, who spoke anonymously said, “We know that Obama will be open to listening to the proposals provided by both sides but he doesn't have any to offer.”

[Related: Rocket explodes in Israel, first attack from Gaza since November truce]

Some Palestinians feel the US administration should focus more on the larger picture. PLO Executive Committee member Bassam Salhhi told The Media Line that the American administration “wants to go into details instead of the whole picture of ending the Israeli occupation. They want the two sides to discuss small matters leading to a belief that the two sides are back to negotiations,” Salhi said, hinting that the US will focus on confidence-building measures rather than on ways to end Israeli control of lands it acquired in the 1967 war. One source said he expects American pressure on Israel to call a halt to post-1967 building as such a measure, indicating it could be effective.

Another senior Palestinian official told The Media Line that Obama is considering a European initiative as the foundation for future peace talks. The British-French plan is rumored to be a revised version of the Arab Initiative, which calls for ending the conflict by normalizing relations between the entire Arab region and Israel, in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the post-1967 lands and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee issue. However, others argue that new US Secretary of State John Kerry is not keen on the European move as much as his predecessor Hillary Clinton was.

Two Palestinian envoys were in Washington last week where they briefed the US administration regarding the Palestinian stance on resuming negotiations with Israel.

Abd Al Majid Swailem, a political science instructor at Al Quds University, told The Media Line that Washington is interested in maintaining the two-state solution but not final status talks. He argued that, “The US doesn't want to see a failure but wants to delay a possible solution until the end of Obama's term which will allow the Democratic party to say during its election campaign that they reached a breakthrough.”

Swailem believes the Americans are disappointed with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's policies, but just can't talk about it.

Belief among Palestinians is that President Obama does not yet have a set agenda, but that Kerry is being counted upon for to set one. Kerry was originally supposed to visit Israel and the Palestinians during the first week of March, but deferred because of the President’s plans.

Meanwhile, in the streets of Ramallah, the news that President Obama is coming to visit was received coolly. “What will the Americans do to us? Part of the reason we are in this bad situation is because of America,” Bassima Hani, 50, told The Media Line.

The planned visit also comes as tension continues to rise amid mutterings about the possibility of a third “Intifada,” albeit without the violence that typified the previous two.

Dozens have been injured in clashes with Israeli forces in West Bank cities, triggered first by a hunger strike by prisoners being held by Israel and on Saturday, the unrelated death of a detainee in another prison.

Abbas told PLO Executive Committee meeting that Israel was taking harsher steps against Palestinians, especially regarding the conditions of Palestinian detainees. He condemned the death of prisoner Arafat Jaradat, who was buried with full military honors, and called for an international probe into its circumstances.

Abbas also rejected Israeli demands that the PA take control of the protests. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has demanded that Palestinian security forces maintain order and prevent violence.The PA announced they have no intention of any violent demonstrations and do not want a third Intifada but support non-violent resistance. “The Israeli army uses live ammunition [against our people] and asks the Palestinian police to prevent clashes. The demonstrations are a response to the Israeli attacks. If there isn't a continuation of detention, there won't be demonstrations,” Abbas said in a statement. He said the Palestinian leadership doesn't want to see an escalation but rather to reach a solution to the conflict.

As a gesture to reduce tensions, Israel this week announced the release of money it collects for the Palestinians and under the terms of the Oslo Accords is supposed to transfer to Ramallah monthly. The tax and tariff revenue is used to pay the salaries of government employees.

By contrast, Israeli officials sounded more upbeat about the upcoming Obama visit. “The visit by the president here in Israel is a special occasion and a chance to demonstrate the special relationship between Washington and Jerusalem; to talk about the excellent bilateral relationship and see whether it's possible to improve that relationship,” Mark Regev, Prime Minister Netanyahu's spokesman, told The Media Line.

In synch with statements from Washington, Regev demonstrated that the Palestinians are not wrong in ruing that their issue will not be primary focus of President Obama’s 48-hours – 43 in Israel and 5 in Ramallah. “The number one issue on the agenda is the Iranian issue and the need to prevent Iran from obtaining an enriched capability. The clock is ticking. The prime minister will also speak about the situation in Syria and the possibility that if Syria fragments, its large arsenal of nonconventional weapons could fall into the hands of Hizbullah or other groups.” But, according to Regev, “We will also discuss our desire to restart negotiations with the Palestinians and to move forward.”

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

Netanyahu hints at ‘severe military action’ if truce fails


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted on Wednesday that if an Egyptian-brokered truce with Islamist militants in Gaza did not work Israel would consider “more severe military action” against the Palestinian territory.

“I know there are citizens expecting a more severe military action, and perhaps we shall need to do so,” Netanyahu told a news conference as the ceasefire ending a weeklong Gaza offensive came into effect.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Crispian Balmer

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.”

Hamas leader says Israeli onslaught has failed


The exiled leader of Hamas said on Wednesday that Israel had failed in its “adventure” when it launched attacks on Gaza and and accepted truce terms.

“It failed, praise be to God,” Khaled Meshaal told a news conference in Cairo, adding that Israel had “failed in its adventure”.

He was speaking after Egypt announced a truce between the two sides.

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

Operation Pillar of Defense: Lessons learned


As Israel and Hamas mostly stilled their guns Wednesday night after reaching a cease-fire agreement, ending eight days of intense bombardment, both sides took home some new lessons about their foes.

By firing longer-range rockets capable of reaching Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Hamas demonstrated for the first time that it could expand the borders of the missile battleground to include the densely populated center of Israel. Even under severe aerial bombardment, Hamas managed to launch some 1,500 missiles over the course of the week. Some traveled as far as 50 miles.

But with its Iron Dome missile defense system, Israel showed how technology can be a game changer on the battlefield. Of the missiles targeted by Iron Dome, which is designed to knock down only missiles aimed at populated areas, approximately 80 percent to 90 percent were eliminated, the Israeli military said. In all, the Israel Defense Forces said Iron Dome downed 421 missiles.

“Eight days ago, Israel launched an operation after terror attacks from Gaza escalated,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday night. With several major terrorist commanders eliminated and much weapons infrastructure destroyed, he said, “we have decided to give cease-fire a chance.”

Israel suffered five fatalities in the fighting, all but one civilians. The Palestinians reported more than 140 killed, including militants and civilians. That’s approximately the same proportion of Israeli-to-Palestinian casualties the last time Israel and Hamas went to war, during the 22-day Operation Cast Lead launched in late 2008. But the Palestinian casualty rate this time was about one-third the rate of Cast Lead, when an average of 350 Palestinians were killed per week.

That’s probably because this round of fighting, which the IDF dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense, did not include a ground invasion.

Palestinian casualties increased significantly during Israel’s ground invasion in the 2008-09 war, stoking international anger. As that war dragged on, Israeli critics said the military achieved diminishing returns the longer it stayed in Gaza and should have gotten out quicker.

This time, though Netanyahu threatened to send in ground troops — calling up 75,000 reserve troops and massing tanks on the Israel-Gaza border — he did not follow through on his threat.

Under the terms of the cease-fire, Israel agreed to halt its operation in Gaza, including targeted assassinations, and Palestinian terrorist groups agreed to stop their rocket fire and border attacks against Israel. Some sporadic fighting was still reported after the cease-fire went into effect Wednesday night.

So, who won, and what did the fighting accomplish?

If it holds, the cease-fire will have ended the rocket fire on southern Israel without any concessions to Hamas — a clear victory for Israel. The operation also enabled Israel to do some damage to Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure, including killing the Hamas military chief, Ahmed Jabari. The IDF was able to do it all without undertaking a risky ground invasion that could have ratcheted up the casualty count on both sides and fueled more international ire.

On the plus side for Hamas, the group showed that despite Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, terrorists are able to get their hands on increasingly potent and sophisticated weaponry, representing a greater threat to Israel. And despite Israel’s bombardment, Hamas’ rocket launching capability has not been destroyed. Few Israelis believe it’s anything but a matter of time before the rocket fire starts anew.

There are some very clear losers here.

Again, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority was left sitting on the sidelines while Hamas commanded Israel’s attention and claimed the mantle of the Palestinian cause. Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, have been frozen since 2009. While Hamas did not achieve any tangible gains from the fighting, Palestinians in the more moderate Fatah-ruled West Bank rallied to Hamas’ side. The notion that negotiation rather than violence is the path toward Palestinian statehood seems to have suffered yet another setback.

While Hamas was emboldened by the Egyptian government’s very public and sympathetic stance, the sympathy didn’t translate into any concrete assistance on the ground. Egypt’s prime minister visited Gaza during the fighting as a show of solidarity, but Egypt kept out of the fighting and retained its role as a broker between Israel and Hamas.

That’s a triumph for President Mohamed Morsi, who showed that despite his affiliation with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood — Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Islamist group — he could play the role of mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Egypt’s gain showed Turkey’s loss. Once Israel’s closest Middle East ally and a key conduit between Israel and the Arab world, Turkey was left on the sidelines of this conflict. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s description of Israel as a “terrorist state” may have won him fans among his Muslim base, but it also signaled that Turkey had lost its unique ability to act as a mediator in the conflict.

Finally, there’s the issue of cost for Israel. Each Iron Dome missile interceptor comes with a price tag in excess of $40,000, and Israelis suffered damage to infrastructure ranging from homes to schools to roads.

But President Obama has pledged to seek additional funding from Congress for the Iron Dome system. The United States already has sent Israel $275 million for Iron Dome over the last two years, and earlier this year the U.S. House of Representatives proposed an additional $680 million through 2015, with the Senate proposing an additional $210 million.

Iron Dome’s success during the fighting also could be a boon for Israel’s defense industry, as other countries facing similar rocket threats clamor for the pioneering missile defense system.

Whether that defense coupled with Israel’s offensive in Gaza is enough to deter Hamas from resuming its attacks remains unclear.

With cease-fire talks proceeding, Israel reportedly holding off on ground invasion


Israel reportedly has held off on a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in order to give cease-fire talks a chance to work.

News reports on Tuesday cited an unnamed Israeli official as saying that the ground invasion was delayed as Egypt attempts to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

Meanwhile, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said Tuesday following his sister's funeral that a truce deal could be concluded in the coming hours, Reuters reported, citing an Egyptian news agency. Egypt reportedly has been passing the draft of a cease-fire agreement between negotiators from Hamas and Israel in Cairo since Monday night.

Hamas reportedly has demanded that Israel stop surgical strikes on Gaza and lift the blockade of the coastal territory. Israel reportedly has called for a halt to rocket fire from Gaza on Israel as well as an end to weapons smuggling from Egypt, according to Reuters.

“I prefer a diplomatic solution,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before a meeting with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Jerusalem. “I hope we can get one, but if not, we have every right to defend ourselves with other means, and we shall use them.”

Foreign leaders have pressed Israel to agree to a cease-fire. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived Tuesday in Israel to encourage a cease-fire, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to arrive Tuesday evening.

Israel is calling up 75,000 reserve troops in preparation for a ground operation. The tank and infantry units have been massed on the Israel-Gaza border.

Gaza truce deal not finalized, Israeli government spokesman says


A cease-fire deal with Gaza militants has not been finalized and the “ball is still in play,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told CNN on Tuesday.

“Until you're there, you're not there,” he said.

Shortly before, an Hamas official said a deal had been reached during talks brokered by Egypt, adding that the ceasefire would come into effect at midnight .

Reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Crispian Balmer

Meeting Clinton, Netanyahu demands ‘long-term’ Gaza deal


Israel is prepared to escalate its Gaza Strip offensive but would prefer a long-term diplomatic solution to the threat of rockets from the Palestinian enclave, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday.

“If there is a possibility of achieving a long-term solution to this problem with diplomatic means, we prefer that,” he said in a public statement alongside visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“But if not, I'm sure you understand that Israel will have to take whatever action is necessary to defend its people.”

Clinton said she would work with Israel and Egypt on brokering a truce in Gaza “in the days ahead”.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Kevin Liffey

Clinton meets Netanyahu to seek Gaza truce


U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday and pledged to work for a truce in the Gaza Strip “in the days ahead.”

As the two began late-night talks in Jerusalem, Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli air strikes continued. Netanyahu said he would prefer a “long-term” diplomatic solution but repeated his readiness to step up an offensive against Gaza's rocket crews.

Clinton's outline of further days of negotiation, notably in Cairo with Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, may dampen talk of an immediate end to a week of violence that has killed over 140 people, most Palestinians but including two Israelis on Tuesday.

Officials from Egypt and from Gaza's ruling Hamas movement had talked up the chances of an end to hostilities, at least in some interim form, by the end of the day. But a Hamas leader in Cairo later told Reuters there would be no announcement before Wednesday. He blamed Israel for not responding to proposals.

Netanyahu, who faces a general election in two months and had mobilized army reserves for threatened ground invasion of the enclave, stressed his interest in a “long-term” deal to end rocket fire on Israel – a kind of deal that has eluded him and his predecessors in four years since Israel's last offensive.

Clinton, too, who broke off from an Asian tour with President Barack Obama and assured Netanyahu of “rock-solid” U.S. support for Israel's security, spoke of seeking a “durable outcome” and of the “responsibility” for contributing to peace borne by Egypt, Gaza's other neighbor, whose new leaders hail from the Muslim Brotherhood that inspired Hamas's founders.

“In the days ahead, the United States will work with our partners here in Israel and across the region toward an outcome that bolsters security for the people of Israel, improves conditions for the people of Gaza and moves toward a comprehensive peace for all people of the region,” Clinton said.

“It is essential to de-escalate the situation in Gaza. The rocket attacks from terrorist organizations inside Gaza on Israeli cities and towns must end and a broader calm restored.

“The goal must be a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security and legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Netanyahu, who has seemed in no immediate rush to repeat the invasion of winter 2008-09 in which over 1,400 Palestinians died, said: “If there is a possibility of achieving a long-term solution to this problem with diplomatic means, we prefer that.

“But if not, I'm sure you understand that Israel will have to take whatever action is necessary to defend its people.”

AIMS

The Jewish state launched the campaign last week with the declared aim of halting the rocketing of its towns from the Palestinian enclave, ruled by the Hamas militant group that does not recognize Israel's right to exist.

Medical officials in Gaza said 31 Palestinians were killed on Tuesday. An Israeli soldier and a civilian died when rockets exploded near the Gaza frontier, police and the army said.

Gaza medical officials say 138 people have died in Israeli strikes, mostly civilians, including 34 children. In all, five Israelis have died, including three civilians killed last week.

Khaled Meshaal, exile leader of Hamas, said on Monday that Israel must halt its military action and lift its blockade of the Palestinian coastal enclave in exchange for a truce.

Obama, whose relations with the hawkish Netanyahu have long been strained, has said he want a diplomatic solution, rather than a possible Israeli ground operation in the densely populated territory, home to 1.7 million Palestinians.

Israel's military on Tuesday targeted more than 130 sites in Gaza, including ammunition stores and the Gaza headquarters of the National Islamic Bank. Israeli police said more than 150 rockets were fired from Gaza by the evening.

“No country would tolerate rocket attacks against its cities and against its civilians. Israel cannot tolerate such attacks,” Netanyahu said with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who arrived in Jerusalem from talks in Cairo, at his side.

JERUSALEM

After nightfall, Israel stepped up its Gaza bombardment. Artillery shells and missiles fired from naval gunboats slammed into the territory and air strikes came at a frequency of about one every 10 minutes.

In an attack claimed in Gaza by Hamas's armed wing, a longer-range rocket targeted Jerusalem on Tuesday for the second time since Israel launched the air offensive.

The rocket, which fell harmlessly in the occupied West Bank, triggered warning sirens in the holy city about the time Ban arrived for truce discussions. Another rocket damaged an apartment building in Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv.

Rockets fired at the two big cities over the past week were the first to reach them in decades, a sign of what Israel says is an increasing threat from Gaza militants.

In the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, Hamas executed six alleged collaborators, whom a security source quoted by the Hamas Aqsa radio said “were caught red-handed” with “filming equipment to take footage of positions”. The radio said they were shot.

Militants on a motorcycle dragged the body of one of the men through the streets.

Along Israel's sandy, fenced-off border with the Gaza Strip, tanks, artillery and infantry massed in field encampments awaiting any orders to go in. Some 45,000 reserve troops have been called up since the offensive was launched.

A delegation of nine Arab ministers, led by the Egyptian foreign minister, visited Gaza in a further signal of heightened Arab solidarity with the Palestinians.

Egypt has been a key player in efforts to end the most serious fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants since a three-week Israeli invasion of the enclave in the winter of 2008-09. Egypt has a 1979 peace treaty with Israel seen by the West as the cornerstone of Middle East peace, but that has been tested as never before by the removal of U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak as president last year in the Arab Spring uprisings.

Mursi, elected Egyptian president this year, is a veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood, spiritual mentors of Hamas, but says he is committed to Egypt's treaty with Israel.

Mursi has warned Netanyahu of serious consequences from an invasion of the kind into Gaza four years ago. But he has been careful so far not to alienate Israel, or Washington, a major aid donor to Egypt.

Additional reporting by Cairo bureau; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Alison Williams

Gaza militants signal truce with Israel after rockets


Palestinian militants indicated they were ready for a truce with Israel on Monday to defuse a growing crisis after four days of rocket strikes from the Gaza Strip into the south of the Jewish state.

There was no immediate response from Israel which has warned it is ready to ramp up its air strikes and shelling if the rockets do not cease.

Leaders of Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza, met with Islamic Jihad and other groups on Monday night and said they would respond according to the way Israel acted – a formulation used in previous flare-ups to offer a ceasefire.

“If (Israel) is interested in calm they should stop the aggression,” Sami Abu Zuhri of Hamas told Reuters.

The Palestinian people were acting in self-defense, he said.

“The ball is in Israel's court. The resistance factions will observe Israel's behavior on the ground and will act accordingly,” said Khaled Al-Batsh of the Islamic Jihad group.

Throughout the day, Israel warned it was ready for stronger action. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened foreign ambassadors in what an apparent move to pre-empt international censure should Israel, whose 2008-2009 Gaza offensive exacted a high civilian toll, again go in hard.

Netanyahu briefed the envoys in Ashkelon, a port city within range of some Palestinian rockets. “None of their governments would accept a situation like this,” he said.

He was due to convene his close forum of nine senior ministers on Tuesday to decide a course of action. Israel Radio said Defence Minister Ehud Barak and military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz had met with Netanyahu on Monday night to present possible attack scenarios.

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, an influential member of Netanyahu's Likud party, said the briefing was meant to prepare world opinion for “what is about to happen”, adding there might be a major Israeli escalation within a few hours.

“Hamas bears responsibility. The heads of Hamas should pay the price and not sleep at night. I expect to see not just a return to targeted killings, but also to very wide activity by (the army),” he told Israel Radio.

Hamas took part in some missile launches at the weekend but it did not claim responsibility for attacks earlier on Monday, suggesting it was looking to step back from the brink.

The Israeli military said Palestinians had fired 12 rockets on Monday, and a total of 119 had been launched since Saturday.

Netanyahu said a million Israelis – around one-eighth of the population – were in danger. Israel has been deploying its Iron Dome rocket interceptor, air raid sirens and blast shelters, but eight people have been wounded by the rockets.

Six Palestinians, including four civilians, have been killed by Israeli shells fired on Gaza since Saturday, and at least 40 have been wounded.

EGYPT IN THE PICTURE

A Palestinian official who declined to be named said Egypt had been trying to broker a ceasefire and although no formal truce was in place, Hamas understood the need for calm.

Monday's launches were claimed by smaller groups, including a radical Salafi organization that rejects Hamas's authority.

Israel has shown little appetite for a new Gaza war, which could strain relations with the new Islamist-rooted government in neighboring Egypt. The countries made peace in 1979.

But Netanyahu may be reluctant to seem weak ahead of a January 22 election that opinion polls currently predict he will win.

Israel said the latest flare-up started on Thursday with a fierce border clash. On Saturday, a Palestinian missile strike wounded four Israeli troops patrolling the boundary, triggering army shelling of Gaza in which the four civilians died.

In turn, dozens of mortars and rockets were launched at Israel, which carried out a series of air strikes in Gaza.

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Editing by Ori Lewis, Douglas Hamilton and Andrew Heavens

Air strikes, car bombs wreck last day of Syrian ‘truce’


Syrian jets bombed parts of Damascus on Monday in what residents said were the capital's fiercest air raids yet, at the end of what was supposed to be a four-day truce.

“More than 100 buildings have been destroyed, some leveled to the ground,” said opposition activist Moaz al-Shami. “Whole neighbourhoods are deserted.”

Each side in the 19-month-old conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels blamed the other for breaking the truce proposed by peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to mark a Muslim holiday. Two car bombs rocked the capital on Monday, state media reported.

“I am deeply disappointed that the parties failed to respect the call to suspend fighting,” U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said.

“This crisis cannot be solved with more weapons and bloodshed … the guns must fall silent.”

Although the military and several rebel groups accepted the plan to stop shooting over Eid al-Adha, which ends on Monday, 500 people have been killed since Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition organization.

Damascus residents said Monday's air raids were the heaviest since jets and helicopters first bombarded pro-opposition parts of the capital in August.

“Even electricity poles have been hit and they are lying among pools of water from burst pipes. There is no food, water, electricity or telephones,” said Shami, who said he witnessed three air raids in the northeastern suburb of Harasta alone.

State media said “armed terrorist groups” had broken the truce over the four days in the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Deir al-Zor and had detonated two car bombs in the capital on Monday.

One killed 10 people, including women and children, near a bakery in Jaramana, a district controlled by forces loyal to Assad. The other was in Hajar al-Aswad, a neighborhood where rebels are based.

INDISPENSABLE

The conflict – which pits majority Sunni Muslims against a leadership dominated by Alawites – a branch of Shi'ite Islam – has grown increasingly sectarian.

The Observatory said that more than 200 Kurdish civilians were detained over the weekend by “militants” and a Kurdish man died from wounds he sustained during torture.

Rebels in Aleppo have fought with Kurdish militants in recent days, accusing Syria's Kurds of siding with Assad. Many Kurds say they want to stay out of the violence by distancing themselves from either side.

Brahimi, who met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Monday before flying to Beijing, said the renewed violence would not discourage him.

“We think this civil war must end … and the new Syria has to be built by all its sons,” he said. “The support of Russia and other members of the (U.N.) Security Council is indispensable.”

Russia and China have vetoed three Western-backed U.N. draft resolutions condemning Assad's government for the violence.

Beijing, keen to show it does not take sides in Syria, has urged Damascus to talk to the opposition and meet demands for political change and has advocated a transitional government.

Big-power rifts have paralyzed U.N. action over Syria, but Assad's political and armed opponents are also deeply divided, a problem which their Western allies say has complicated efforts to provide greater support.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry released a statement after Monday's car bombs, lambasting the Security Council for not condemning actions it said “encouraged terrorists to continue their crimes against the Syrian people.”

The civil war continued to spill over Syria's borders on Monday, as mortar bombs landed in southern Turkey. A judicial source in Lebanon said eight Syrians were arrested near the border in possession of arms and one was charged with firing at the Lebanese army.

Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Moscow and Michael Martina in Beijing; Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Rockets fired from Gaza hit Israel despite truce


Four rockets were fired from Gaza at a Jewish community in the Negev.

The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted two of the four rockets fired at Netivot Tuesday evening. The others landed in open areas and did not cause any damage, according to reports.

On Tuesday morning a rocket fired from Gaza that landed in a kibbutz in southern Israel struck an empty hen house.

The rockets were fired despite an Egyptian-mediated truce between Israel and Gazan terrorist groups that went into effect on Sunday evening.

More than 150 rockets fired from Gaza have struck southern Israel since the cross-border attacks began last week.

Despite truce, rockets still falling on Israel


Rockets continued to fall on southern Israel despite a truce with Gazan terrorist groups.

The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted five rockets fired at Ashkelon shortly after the truce, which was mediated by Egypt, went into effect at 8 p.m. Sunday. Several rockets also hit southern Israel on Sunday.

An Israeli man, 50, was seriously injured by shrapnel when a rocket exploded near a factory in Sderot.  A school in Sderot also was damaged by rocket fire.

Israel struck several targets in Gaza over the weekend, according to the Israeli military, including a terror cell about to detonate a rocket. Hamas reported that at least three Palestinians were killed in retaliatory attacks over the weekend, including a child and a terrorist.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the regularly scheduled Cabinet meeting on Sunday said “the IDF is taking strong action against those who are attacking us and it will take even stronger action if need be. Our policy is to use force in order to restore security and quiet to the residents of the south.”

At least 150 rockets fired from Gaza have struck southern Israel since the cross-border attacks began last week, the Israel Defense Forces reported.

Cross-border violence continues between Israel and Gaza


An Israeli air strike killed a Palestinian militant and wounded two men in the Gaza Strip on Friday, Israel and Hamas medical officials said, two days after an Egyptian-brokered truce had calmed an outbreak of cross-border violence.

The strike in central Gaza followed the firing of two rockets at Israel earlier in the day. There were no reported casualties in those incidents.

An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed there was an air strike after a Hamas medical official in Gaza said a militant had been killed and two other people were wounded in an Israeli strike at al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.

Israel said its jets had targeted militants preparing to fire rockets at Israel. In Gaza, the Popular Resistance Committees, militants often involved in shooting rockets, said the man killed in the attack belonged to their group.

The violence broke a two-day lull in cross-border attacks when Hamas militants in Gaza said they would abide by an Egyptian-brokered deal to withhold fire as long as Israel also stopped shooting.

Egypt feared the fighting near its borders could spark wider violence at a time when Cairo was confronting fresh popular protests over the uncertain outcome of a presidential vote.

Hamas’s involvement in the fighting had added to Egypt’s and Israel’s concerns, as the Islamist group which governs Gaza had largely avoided direct involvement in confrontations with Israel since a devastating 2009 Israeli offensive.

The militant killed on Friday was the ninth person in Gaza killed by Israeli air strikes since Monday, including a 14-year-old boy. Israel launched these attacks after an attack from Egyptian Sinai that killed an Israeli man.

Israel responded on Monday by killing two of the attackers, then targeted militants in Gaza including some it blamed for the Egyptian border incident and others it said fired rockets.

The Israeli military said more than 130 rockets and mortars fired from Gaza have struck Israeli towns since Monday, some of them launched after the truce was called.

Reporting by Saleh Salem; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Louise Ireland

Call for Friday protests is first test of Syria truce


Syrian opposition activists called mass protests for Friday to test a fragile, day-old ceasefire by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and international pressure mounted for Damascus to fully comply with a U.N.-backed peace plan.

Anxious to build on a truce between the armed forces and rebels which brought an eerie calm to Syria on Thursday, after more than a year of clashes, the U.N. Security Council worked on a resolution authorizing U.N. observers to monitor it.

World leaders welcomed the halt in fighting which had threatened to spill over into neighboring countries and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the situation looked calmer.

“The world is watching, however, with skeptical eyes since many promises previously made by the government of Syria have not been kept,” he told a news conference in Geneva.

Along with the withdrawal of forces from population centers, U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point plan calls for talks with the opposition aimed at a “political transition”, the release of political prisoners, access for humanitarian aid and journalists, and for the authorities to “respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully”.

Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said he did not trust the authorities to allow the renewal of protests after Friday prayers, a feature of the uprising that has been subdued by violence in recent months.

The authorities, he said, had their “hand on the trigger”.

“While we call on the Syrian people to protest strongly… we ask them to be cautious because the regime will not respect the ceasefire and will shoot,” he told Reuters.

The Syrian Interior Ministry said only pre-authorized demonstrations would be permitted by police, a caveat which the opposition said did not bode well.

“This is ridiculous,” said an activist called Musab from Hama city, a focus of opposition activity and government bombardment along with Homs and Idlib. “They will not give you permission and you will be taken to jail if you ask for it”.

He said a demonstration on Wednesday in the town of Qalat Madiq, in Hama province, had been broken up by security forces firing, and nine people were arrested. Most independent media are banned from Syria, making such reports impossible to verify.

In Homs, where opposition stronghold districts were all but deserted, activist Yazan expressed doubt people would dare to go out because snipers, tanks and soldiers were still in place. “People are wary and they believe that this ceasefire is only temporary. Nobody is leaving their homes,” he said.

The SNC’s spokesman said Assad could simply not afford to stop shooting, since that would allow a new wave of mass protests against his family’s four decades of absolute power.

“As soon as there is a real ceasefire, people will come out to the streets, demonstrating and demanding his removal, his stepping down. So I think the regime has to retaliate by opening fire again,” spokesman Bassam Imadi told Reuters in Istanbul. “But let’s hope for the better.”

Annan, mandated by the United Nations and Arab League, has called for 200 to 250 unarmed U.N. observers to monitor the ceasefire.

A similar Arab League mission ended in disarray amid mounting violence in January, but Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the 15-member Security Council could adopt a resolution authorizing the deployment of a U.N. observer force as early as Friday.

“The full-fledged mission will take some time to deploy … If we are able to put 20 or 30 monitors (there) early next week, very good,” Churkin said. “If we are able to put more in the next few days that’s even better.”

A draft resolution drawn up by the United States would have the Council authorize an initial deployment of up to 30 observers and demand the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from population centers and an end to violence on all sides.

It included a vague threat of future action against Damascus, saying the council “expresses its determination, in the event that the Syrian government does not implement its commitments, to consider further measures as appropriate”.

It was not immediately clear how Russia and China, which vetoed two previous resolutions condemning Assad’s 13-month assault on anti-government protesters, reacted to the draft, which diplomats discussed behind closed doors on Thursday.

Most of the demands in it were addressed to the Syrian government, which could irritate Moscow and Beijing. Both have welcomed the ceasefire while emphasizing the requirement for rebel forces to comply.

The United States and European Union have imposed their own sanctions against Damascus after failing to persuade Russia and China to join in.

Moscow and Beijing are wary of further U.N. moves, alarmed by the way last year’s Security Council resolution on Libya led to military intervention, though Western leaders are also cautious about intervening in Syria’s mix of religious and ethnic groups.

Ban said there had been a surge in Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey and Lebanon this week and an estimated 1 million people inside Syria now needed humanitarian assistance.

He was urging Assad to keep his promise and to exercise maximum restraint, he said.

“This ceasefire process is very fragile – it may be broken any time if, and when, there is another gunshot,” Ban said. “This is a very worrisome.”

Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva, Oliver Holmes and Douglas Hamilton in Beirut, Michael Holden in London and Balazs Koranyi in Oslo; writing by Philippa Fletcher; editing by Jon Boyle

Israel-Gaza truce mostly observed


An Egyptian-brokered truce between Israel and militant groups in the Gaza Strip was largely observed on Tuesday after four days of violence in which 25 Palestinians were killed and 200 rockets were fired at Israel.

The number of Palestinian rocket attacks dropped sharply after the deal took effect overnight, with less than 10 rockets reportedly fired since then. In a further sign of a return to normality, towns and cities in southern Israel announced plans to reopen schools that had been kept shut for the past three days.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled Israel’s commitment to the deal, while warning of a strong response to any violations.

“Our message is that quiet will bring quiet,” Netanyahu said in a Jerusalem speech. “Anyone who violates it or even tries to violate it, our guns will find him.”

The worst flare-up of violence along the restive frontier in months began on Friday after Israel killed a senior militant it accused of plotting to attack Israel from Egyptian territory.

Israel said Gaza militants had fired about 200 rockets at its southern towns and cities from Gaza since then. Eight Israelis were injured by the rockets. At least 80 Palestinians were wounded in Israeli attacks.

Previous ceasefire deals after earlier rounds of fighting have often got off to a slow start, with guns gradually falling silent within a day or two. In this case, militants fired nine mortars and rockets in the hours after the deal took effect, causing no damage or injury.

A rocket struck harmlessly after nightfall near the city of Ashkelon, shattering a six-hour calm but provoking no immediate response. Israel has not launched any air strikes at the Hamas-ruled coastal territory since the deal was done.

A senior Egyptian security official in Cairo told Reuters by phone that both sides had agreed “to end the current operations”, with Israel agreeing to “stop assassinations” and an overall deal “to begin a comprehensive and mutual (period of) calm”.

The truce agreement followed appeals from the United States, the United Nations, France, the European Union and the Arab League for both sides to exercise restraint.

‘IRON DOME’ SYSTEM PROTECTS ISRAEL

“We expect this ceasefire to continue but we cannot be sure so our forces…are ready to continue if it will end up being necessary,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, visiting southern Israel, told reporters.

“It was quite a successful round,” he said, citing the deaths of 20 militants among the 25 Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks and what he termed the “impressively effective” Iron Dome rocket interception system.

The anti-missile batteries destroyed dozens of incoming rockets, but the barrages disrupted normal life for more than a million Israelis in the south, forcing schools to close and people to run for cover when sirens sounded.

Gaza’s Hamas Islamist leadership has kept out of the fighting and seemed eager to avoid a larger conflict with Israel.

“If Israel is committed to the agreement, we also will be committed to it,” said Khaled al-Batsh, a senior leader of Islamic Jihad which, along with the Popular Resistance Committees, was most active in the fighting.

NO APPETITE FOR PROLONGED CONFLICT

While Israel was keen to prevent rocket fire, there seemed to be little public enthusiasm for waging a longer military campaign reminiscent of a 2008-2009 offensive in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.

Gaza, home to 1.7 million people, was under Israeli occupation from 1967 until 2005 and remains under blockade.

Radical Islamist group Hamas has controlled Gaza since seizing it from West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. It has shunned the stalled peace process supervised by international powers and refuses to recognize Israel.

Violent flare-ups have been frequent between Israel and Gaza’s militant factions in the past few years, in most cases lasting no longer than a week.

The last conflagration of this intensity was in August after a cross-border attack launched from Egypt killed eight people in Israel and Israel struck back killing 15 Gaza gunmen.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Andrew Osborn

Israel, Gazan militants agree to truce, Egyptian official said


Israel and militant factions in the Gaza Strip have agreed to an Egyptian-mediated truce to end four days of cross-border violence in which 25 Palestinians have been killed, a senior Egyptian security official told Reuters on Tuesday.

The official said in a telephone call from Cairo that both sides had “agreed to end the current operations”, with Israel giving an unusual undertaking to “stop assassinations”, and an overall agreement “to begin a comprehensive and mutual calm”.

The agreement was expected to take effect at 1 a.m. local time. There was no immediate comment from either side on the agreement. Previous ceasefire deals after earlier rounds of fighting have often got off to a shaky start.

Israeli media quoted Israeli officials as reiterating the longstanding policy that Israel would “answer quiet with quiet” but stopped short of providing any guarantees to withhold fire in response to rocket attacks.

An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment.

Gaza’s Hamas leadership, whose own cadres have kept out of the fighting, had confirmed on Sunday that Egypt was working on a deal to stop the violence.

Israel said Gaza militants had fired about 150 rockets at its southern towns and cities from Gaza since fighting flared on Friday after Israel killed a senior militant it accused of plotting to attack Israel from Egyptian territory.

Eight Israelis were injured by the rockets, dozens of which were shot down harmlessly by Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile interceptor system.

Twenty of the Palestinians killed since fighting flared in the Hamas-controlled enclave were militants and five were civilians, according to medical officials.

At least 80 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been wounded in the violence which also paralyzed life in much of southern Israel, forcing schools to close and hundreds of thousands to remain indoors.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Andrew Roche

Israel moves to ease strains with Egypt


Israel offered on Thursday to investigate jointly with Egypt the killing of five Egyptian security personnel during an Israeli operation against cross-border raiders a week ago, violence that has strained relations with Cairo’s new rulers.

“Israel is ready to hold a joint investigation with the Egyptians into the difficult event,” a statement issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office quoted his national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, as saying.

Amidror said the terms of such a probe “would be set by the armies of both sides”, going a step beyond Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s earlier pledge to hold an investigation and share its findings with Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

While Israel moved to ease tensions with Egypt, it mounted further attacks against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, where more than 20 rockets have been launched at southern Israel since Wednesday despite a truce announced on Monday.

Five Palestinians, including a local commander of the Islamic Jihad group in the Gaza Strip, have been killed in the latest bloodshed.

The surge of violence began on Aug. 18 when gunmen who Israel said had infiltrated from the Gaza Strip via Egypt’s neighbouring Sinai desert killed eight Israelis on a desert border road.

Seven of the attackers were killed by Israeli forces and Egypt said five of its men died in the crossfire. The incident triggered the most serious diplomatic row with Egypt since a popular revolt overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February.

The violence between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip threatens to unravel the shaky truce mediated by Egypt and the United Nations.

U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry, in a written statement, expressed his “deep concern” and called on all sides “to immediately take steps to prevent any further escalation”.

Taher al-Nono, a Hamas spokesman, said any “understanding for calm must be mutual and we will not accept that Israel continues its killing of our people”.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Editing by Jeffrey Heller

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