GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Efforts to end a week-old convulsion of Israeli-Palestinian violence drew in the world’s top diplomats on Tuesday, with President Obama dispatching his secretary of state to the region on an emergency mission and the U.N. chief appealing from Cairo for an immediate cease-fire.
Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers have staked tough, hard-to-bridge positions, and the gaps keep alive the threat of an Israeli ground invasion. On Tuesday, grieving Gazans were burying militants and civilians killed in ongoing Israeli airstrikes, and barrages of rockets from Gaza sent terrified Israelis scurrying to take cover.
From Egypt, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he came to the region because of the “alarming situation.”
“This must stop, immediate steps are needed to avoid further escalation, including a ground operation,” Ban said. “Both sides must hold fire immediately … Further escalation of the situation could put the entire region at risk.”
A deputy White House national security adviser said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would depart for the Mideast on Tuesday from Cambodia, where she had accompanied Obama on a visit to Southeast Asia. The official said Clinton would begin her Mideast diplomacy by meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, then she would meet with senior officials of the Palestinian government in the West Bank before heading to Cairo to meet with Egyptian leaders.
The U.S. considers Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide and other attacks, to be a terror group and does not meet with its officials. The Obama administration blames Hamas for the latest eruption of violence and says Israel has the right to defend itself. At the same time, it has warned against a ground invasion, saying it could send casualties spiraling.
The conflict erupted last week, when a resurgence in rocket fire from Gaza provoked Israel to strike back, killing Hamas’ military chief in an air attack and carrying out hundreds of assaults on militants’ underground rocket launchers and weapons stores.
The onslaught abruptly turned deadlier over the weekend as aircraft were ordered to go after Hamas military commanders and buildings suspected of housing their commands and weapons caches. In the narrow alleys and warrens of crowded Gaza, where militants often operate from residential areas, civilian casualties mounted.
By Tuesday, civilians accounted for 54 of the 113 Palestinians killed since the operation began. Some 840 people have been wounded, including 225 children, Gaza health officials said.
Early Tuesday, Israeli aircraft targeted another Hamas symbol of power, battering the headquarters of the bank senior Hamas officials set up to sidestep international sanctions on the militant group’s rule. After Hamas violently overran Gaza in June 2007, foreign lenders stopped doing business with the militant-led Gaza government, afraid of running afoul of international terror financing laws.
The inside of the bank, which was set up by leading Hamas members and describes itself as a private enterprise, was destroyed. Abuilding supply business in the basement was damaged.
Owner Suleiman Tawil, 31, grimly surveyed the damage to his store and six company cars. “I’m not involved in politics,” he said. “I’m a businessman. But the more the Israelis pressure us, the more we will support Hamas.”
Fuad Hijazi and two of his toddler sons were killed Monday evening when missiles struck their one-story shack in northern Gaza, leaving a crater about two to three meters (seven to 10 feet) deep in the densely populated neighborhood. Residents said the father was not a militant.
On Tuesday morning, the boys’ bodies lay next to each other on a rack in the local morgue, wrapped tightly in white burial shrouds. Their father lay in a rack below.
“We want to tell the world which is supporting the state of Israel, what this state is doing,” said neighbor Rushdie Nasser. “They are supporting a state that kills children … We want to send a message to the U.N. and the West: Enough of supporting the Zionists, who are killing children.”
Three Israeli civilians have also been killed and dozens wounded since the fighting began last week, the numbers possibly kept down by a rocket-defense system that Israel developed with U.S. funding. More than 1,000 rockets have been fired at Israel this week, the military said, including three that struck schools that had been emptied because of the fighting.
As part of global efforts to end the Gaza fighting, U.N. chief arrived in Cairo on Monday and was to meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem on Tuesday. In Cairo, Ban said he would also travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. With tens of thousands of Israeli soldiers dispatched to the Gaza border, awaiting a possible order to invade, his mission was all the more urgent.
Germany’s foreign minister was also headed to the region for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Turkey’s foreign minister and a delegation of Arab League foreign ministers were to visit Gaza on Tuesday.
Egypt, the traditional mediator between Israel and the Arab world, has been at the center of recent diplomatic efforts involving the U.S., Turkey, Qatar and other nations.
On Monday, Egyptian intelligence officials met separately in Cairo with an Israeli envoy and with Khaled Mashaal, the top Hamas leader in exile, to try to bridge the considerable differences.
Israel demands an end to rocket fire from Gaza and a halt to weapons smuggling into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt. It also wants international guarantees that Hamas will not rearm or use Egypt’s Sinai region, which abuts both Gaza and southern Israel, to attack Israelis.
Hamas wants Israel to halt all attacks on Gaza and lift tight restrictions on trade and movement in and out of the territory that have been in place since Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007. Israel has rejected such demands in the past.
Mashaal told reporters Monday that Hamas would only agree to a cease-fire if its demands are met. “We don’t accept Israeli conditions because it is the aggressor,” he said. “We want a cease-fire along with meeting our demands.”
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel prefers to end this round of violence through diplomacy but insists the outcome would guarantee Israel long-term quiet along its border with Gaza.
“The declared purpose of this operation was to make rockets stop, once and for all, or at least for a very long time,” he said Tuesday, without specifying a timeframe. “All instruments have their limitations. But if the diplomatic path proves itself unuseful, then the only path that will be left is the military. But we hope to explore the diplomatic path to its full extent.”
Successive Israeli governments, meanwhile, have struggled to come up with an effective policy toward Hamas, which is deeply rooted in Gaza, a densely populated territory of 1.6 million.
Neither Israel’s economic blockade of the territory nor bruising military strikes have cowed Gaza’s Islamists, weakened their grip on the Palestinian strip their ability to fire rockets at the Jewish state.
An Israeli ground invasion would risk Israeli troop losses, and it could send the number of Palestinian civilian casualties ballooning – a toll Israel could be reluctant to risk just four years after its last invasion drew allegations of war crimes.
Still, with Israeli elections just two months away, polls show Israeli public sentiment has lined up staunchly behind the offensive Netanyahu’s government has launched.
Israel and Gaza’s militants have a long history of fighting, but the dynamics have changed radically since they last warred four years ago. Though their hardware is no match for the Israeli military, militants have upgraded their capabilities with weapons smuggled in from Iran and Libya, Israeli officials claim.
Only a few years ago, tens of thousands of Israelis were within rocket range. Today those numbers have swollen to 3.5 million, as the militants’ improved weapons allowed the unprecedented targeting of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this week.
Hamas, a branch of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, is also negotiating from a stronger position than four years ago, when Israel launched a three-week war on the militants in Gaza. At that time, Hamas was internationally isolated; now, the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Egypt and Tunisia, and Hamas is also getting political support from Qatar and Turkey.
At home, too, the military offensive has shored up Hamas at a time when it was riven by internal divisions over its direction and the new Egyptian government’s refusal to lift the blockade it imposed along with Israel after Hamas seized the territory in 2007.
This newfound backing contrasts radically with the loss of stature the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has endured as Palestinians lose faith in his ability to bring them a state through negotiations with Israel.