Day five of Operation Pillar of Defense ended Sunday night with indications of the first major IAF misfire into Gaza, deadlocked ceasefire talks in Cairo, dozens of Hamas rocket attacks into Israel, and more than 140 Israeli airstrikes on terror targets in the Strip.
The army said it was checking late at night into indications that a strike aimed at the home of Hamas’s rocket chief Yihya Abiya had left Abiya with only minor injuries but destroyed the adjacent home and killed 11 members of the Dalu family, including six women and four children. Pictures from the scene showed a home reduced to rubble.
Israel had called-up some 40,000 reservists by nightfall, ahead of a possible ground incursion. Diplomatic sources said that in contacts involving the US and Egypt, Israel had agreed to hold off a ground offensive for some 48 hours, to give Egypt time to mediate a ceasefire with Hamas. Israeli representatives were said to be in Cairo for ceasefire talks, but while Israel was seeking guarantees that there could be no resumption of rocket fire, Hamas was demanding an end to all Israeli strikes on targets in the Strip and the opening of Gaza’s borders — terms to which Israel was said to be thoroughly opposed.
Earlier Sunday, US President Barack Obama publicly backed the ongoing Israeli operation. “Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory,” Obama said at a news conference in Bangkok at the start of a three-nation visit to Asia. “If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that’s preferable… It’s not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It’s also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they’re much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.”
Israel continued to sustain dozens of rocket attacks from the Strip throughout the day, with more than 30 rockets intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Over 50 rockets targeted the Eshkol regional council, which lies adjacent to the southern Gaza Strip. Tel Aviv was also targeted. Ten Israelis were injured by rocket hits, including five in Ashkelon and Ofakim.
IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai said that while fewer rockets fell in Israel Sunday than on previous days, 30 rockets did fall in populated areas, with considerable damage and several injuries being reported.
Israeli airstrikes had been extremely effective, Mordechai said, and the scope, volume and effectiveness of Hamas’s rocket fire had been severely damaged.
In all, the Palestinians reported 29 fatalities in Gaza on Sunday. Mordechai said numerous key Hamas figures had been killed; in all, 70 Hamas activists had been killed in the five days of the operation. On Sunday, the IAF carried out 120 strikes on Hamas targets — bringing its five-day total to 1,130 — including key personnel, rocket launch sites, and other terrorist infrastructure.
Senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzook said on Sunday evening that the Islamists had rejected two of Israel’s ceasefire demands out of hand.
The first demand was that Hamas commit to creating a 1-kilometer buffer zone along the border with Gaza, beyond which people cannot enter. The width of the “no-man’s-land” currently varies at different points along the border, and averages about 300 meters.
The second condition laid down by Israel was that Hamas put an end to all weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he was working in conjunction with Hamas to bring about an end to the fighting.
Abbas said that “the Palestinian people need to continue to protest in a non-violent manner against the Israeli aggression against Gaza.” Abbas also called for Palestinian national unity and praised those Arab leaders who had visited the Gaza Strip since the onset of the violence.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday told French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius that Israel would only be willing to consider ending its Pillar of Defense operation once rocket fire from Gaza completely ceased.
“First the shooting must stop, then we can discuss everything else,” he said, referring to diplomatic efforts for a ceasefire.
President Shimon Peres told Fabius that Hamas cannot claim to be fighting the occupation, because there is no occupation.
“We voluntarily left Gaza (during the 2005 disengagement),” said the president, “and they fire at us when our children are leaving school.” He added that “Israel has set itself a goal to end the rocket fire and to allow the mothers in the south a good night’s sleep, something that hasn’t happened for too long.”
The Education Ministry announced the cancellation of Monday’s classes in all schools situated within 40 kilometers of the Gaza Strip. The list includes the cities of Beersheba (population 190,000), Ashdod (200,000), Kiryat Gat (48,000) and Ashkelon (110,000). Classes are expected to be held as scheduled in the Greater Tel Aviv area.
Reporters Without Borders condemned Israeli missile attacks on two media centers in Gaza that wounded six Palestinian journalists and damaged the equipment of foreign media outlets.
The attacks on the two high-rise buildings damaged the offices of the Hamas TV station, Al Aqsa, and a Lebanese-based broadcaster, Al Quds TV, seen as sympathetic to the Islamists. Germany’s public broadcaster ARD; Russia Today, a state TV network that broadcasts in English; and Sky News Arabia said they lost equipment in the attacks.
The Israeli military said the strikes targeted Hamas communications equipment on the buildings’ rooftops and accused Hamas of using journalists as “human shields.”
Eighty trucks bearing medical supplies and food entered the Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing on Sunday, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Eitan Dangot said.
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon hit back at British Foreign Secretary William Hague for saying Israel would lose international support if it embarked on a ground-based offensive. Ya’alon told reporters he expected Israel’s allies to support it unconditionally and that he didn’t appreciate Hague’s statement.
He added that the army did not launch Operation Pillar of Defense to topple Hamas, but rather to return calm to the rocket-stricken south.
Israel’s announcement Sunday that it was widening its campaign to target homes of militants appeared to mark a new and risky phase of the operation, given the likelihood of civilian casualties in the densely populated territory of 1.5 million Palestinians.
The day’s deadliest strike hit the home of the Dalu family in Gaza City.
Frantic rescuers pulled the bodies of several children from the ruins of the house.
In a statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply saddened” by the deaths of the civilians and “alarmed by the continuing firing of rockets against Israeli towns.”
Mordechai told Channel 2 TV that the Israeli navy had targeted the building and killed a “global jihad” militant.
“The targets are exact,” Mordechai said. “Every (Israeli) missile has an address.”
More than a dozen homes of Hamas commanders or families linked to Hamas were struck on Sunday. Though most were empty — their inhabitants having fled to shelter — at least three still had families in them.
Ya’alon said civilian casualties are inevitable. “You can’t avoid collateral damage if they position the rockets in densely populated areas, in mosques, school yards. We shouldn’t be blamed for the outcome,” he said.
The repeated militant rocket fire on Tel Aviv and a volley fired Friday toward Jerusalem have significantly escalated the hostilities by widening the militants’ rocket range and putting 3.5 million Israelis, or half the country’s population, within reach.
Israeli radio stations repeatedly interrupted their broadcasts to air “Code Red” alerts warning of impending rocket strikes. In Ashkelon, rocket fire damaged a residential building, punching a hole in the ceiling and riddling the facade with shrapnel.