Israel and its key ally the United States were in open disagreement Friday night, after the Israeli cabinet unanimously rejected a ceasefire offer drawn up by Secretary of State John Kerry to halt 18 days of Israeli-Hamas conflict.
Kerry, speaking in Cairo, vowed to keep working on a ceasefire, and said Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “committed” to working to narrow the gaps that were preventing a seven-day humanitarian ceasefire intended to lead to a longer-term deal. He also said Netanyahu had accepted an idea, proposed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, of a 12-hour humanitarian time out. Israeli sources said the idea was under consideration.
But Israeli government sources told Army Radio the ceasefire terms proposed by Kerry were “completely unreasonable.” An unnamed senior Israeli government official flatly disputed Kerry’s assertion that his offer was “built on the Egyptian initiative” — which Israel accepted last week and Hamas rejected. In fact, the official was quoted saying, the Kerry offer is not built on the Egyptian proposal and tilts heavily toward Hamas.
The Army Radio report highlighted that the US on Monday signed an $11 billion arms deal with Qatar, and noted that Qatar is championing Hamas’s demands in the ceasefire negotiations, and is also alleged by Israel to be financing Hamas’s rocket production, tunnel digging infrastructure, and other elements of its military infrastructure. The radio report also claimed that Ban Ki-moon “is flying around the region on a Qatari plane.”
Indications from the lengthy Israeli cabinet meeting that rejected Kerry’s offer Friday are that the ministers were incensed that the terms of the deal would not have enabled Israel to continue to locate and demolish a network of dozens of tunnels that Hamas has dug, up to a mile or more long, from under Gaza residential areas all the way beneath the Israeli border.
Six Israeli soldiers have been killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from these tunnels in five incidents in the past 18 days, and Netanyahu said on Sunday that Hamas was planning massive terrorist attacks via the tunnels on Israeli kibbutzim that would have had “catastrophic consequences.”
Israel’s relations with Kerry, strained for a long time, were not helped when he was caught on a hot-mic earlier this week apparently sneering at Israel’s insistence that it is trying to tackle Hamas terror targets in Gaza with “pinpoint” accuracy. Comments made by the secretary in the same incident also indicated that Israel had not invited him to embark on this ceasefire mission, presumably because Israel wanted more time to tackle the Hamas tunnels.
The Israeli army’s southern commander, who is overseeing Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza, confirmed earlier Friday that he felt the army needed more time, although it had located what it believes are most of the tunnels.
The formal text of the ceasefire proposal offered by Kerry and rejected by Israel had not been released as of Friday evening. Earlier, though, The Times of Israel reported on what Arab sources said were its key elements.
The Kerry proposal, they said, provides for an immediate halt to hostilities to be followed 48 hours later by the start of five to-seven days of contacts between Israel, Palestinian and Egyptian delegations in Cairo, with the Palestinian delegation including Hamas officials. The talks in Egypt would include discussion of Hamas’s call for the lifting of the so-called siege of the Gaza Strip, and other demands.
In his comments on Friday in Cairo, Kerry said that Egypt had indeed offered to bring the “Palestinian factions,” and other interested parties, and Israel, to Cairo for such talks. “We still have some terminology” to work through, Kerry said. “But we are confident that we have a fundamental framework” that can work.
The Arab sources said the Kerry terms would provide for all military activity by the sides to halt immediately. On the Palestinian side, this provision was interpreted as meaning that Israel’s activities to find and destroy Hamas’s cross-border tunnels would also immediately be halted. But Israel has reportedly pushed for terms that would enable it to continue tackling the Hamas tunnels after a halt to hostilities.
The Arab sources said the discussions in Cairo would cover Hamas demands relating to: opening border crossings between Gaza and Israel; opening the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt; the release of recently rearrested prisoners from the Shalit deal; the release of some 30 convicted terrorists, including Israeli Arabs, who were set to go free under the collapsed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in late March; widening Palestinian fishing rights off the Gaza coast, and the establishment of a Gaza seaport.
Netanyahu has said Operation Protective Edge will continue and expand as necessary until sustained calm has been achieved for the people of Israel and Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure has been significantly weakened. Israeli officials have spoken of the need to have Gaza demilitarized, and the EU earlier this week demanded the disarming of Hamas and other Gaza terror groups. Hamas has fired over 2,000 rockets at Israel over the past 18 days. The IDF launched a ground offensive last Thursday that has focused on finding and demolishing the network of dozens of tunnels dug by Hamas under the Israel border.
Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.