Israeli government sources on Saturday night accused US Secretary of State John Kerry of “completely capitulating” to the demands of Hamas and its champion Qatar in drafting the Gaza war ceasefire proposal that Israeli ministers unanimously rejected on Friday.
The unnamed sources, quoted by Israel’s Channel 2 TV, said Kerry “dug a tunnel under the Egyptian ceasefire proposal” — which Israel accepted and Hamas rejected last week — and presented the Israeli government with a text that accepted “most of the demands” raised by Hamas, the Islamist terror group that rules the Strip.
To the “horror” of the Israeli ministers, the Kerry proposal accepted Hamas’s demands for the opening of border crossings into Gaza — where Israel and Egypt fear the import of weaponry; the construction of a seaport; and the creation of a post-conflict funding channel for Hamas from Qatar and other countries, according to the sources. The proposal, meanwhile, did not even provide for Israel to continue demolishing the Hamas network of “terror tunnels” dug under the Israeli border.
Rather than provoke an open diplomatic confrontation with the United States, the report said, the appalled ministers chose not to issue an official statement rejecting the Kerry terms. Instead, word of the decision was allowed to leak out.
The cabinet was meeting again on Saturday night to discuss all aspects of the 19-day conflict with Hamas. Ongoing efforts were being made to reformulate the ceasefire terms, Israeli sources said.
Channel 2’s diplomatic reporter Udi Segal said “voices” from the cabinet had described Kerry as “negligent,” “lacking the ability to understand” the issues, and “incapable of handling the most basic matters.”
The Channel 2 report said that some of those involved in the contacts with Kerry had suggested that “perhaps there was some kind of misunderstanding” or that Kerry “was only presenting a draft” of the offer, but the secretary himself gave no indication that this was the case when he expressed his disappointment that no ceasefire had been agreed during a press conference in Cairo on Friday night.
Israel and Hamas did maintain a humanitarian truce through Saturday evening, during which Israel continued to track and demolish some of the Hamas tunnels. Hamas ended the truce unilaterally on Saturday night and resumed rocket fire.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, in a TV interview just before the Saturday night cabinet meeting, said Israel needed to continue its ground offensive in Gaza until it was confident that what the IDF had achieved “can prevent a fourth round” of conflict with Hamas and guarantee the safety of the people of Israel. “We have to be sure, the day after a ceasefire, that Hamas cannot restart digging tunnels” and amassing better, more dangerous missiles. “If we haven’t achieved that…,” he tailed off.
Israel was also fuming Saturday over the tactics followed by Secretary Kerry since Friday night in his ceasefire quest.
Kerry flew to Paris and held talks Saturday without representatives of Israel, the Palestinian Authority or Egypt, but with Qatar and Turkey, which Israel’s Communications Minister Gilad Erdan said showed “we’re a long way from a political solution.”
Privately, Israeli sources signaled deep dismay that Kerry engaged in the talks in Paris with representatives of Turkey, whose leadership is openly hostile to Israel, and Qatar, whose leadership is seen by Israel to be representing Hamas’s interests. Egypt was also understood to be deeply dissatisfied with Kerry’s tactics.
Israeli government sources also privately contradicted Kerry’s assertion Friday that his ceasefire proposal was “built on” the Egyptian proposal from last Tuesday. Far from resembling the Egyptian proposal, which urges an immediate ceasefire followed by negotiation, the Kerry proposal leans heavily toward Hamas, the sources said, in tying Hamas preconditions to a cessation of hostilities.
Said Erdan, in a Saturday evening interview on Channel 2: “We will not end this operation and leave Gaza until the tunnels are dealt with.” Israel is also intent on drastically degrading Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure, he said. “The international community needs to understand that we are very open to the economic rehabilitation of Gaza” once the conflict is over, but that if Hamas remained in control of Gaza, and continued to build rockets and tunnels, Israel “won’t be able to tolerate that.”
Saturday’s “humanitarian truce” in Gaza, in contrast to the Kerry ceasefire terms, was regarded as meeting Israel’s interests, government sources said. Israel was able to continue work on demolishing the tunnels, they noted.
On Friday afternoon, The Times of Israel published what Arab sources said were the key terms of the Kerry offer, which indeed made no provision for Israel to be able to continue tracing and demolishing the cross-border tunnels.
An Army Radio report on Friday night 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.”
Channel 2’s respected Middle East analyst Ehud Ya’ari said Saturday that Turkey and Qatar are “Hamas’s lawyers,” and that it was “very worrying” to see how Kerry was handling the ceasefire process.
Six Israeli soldiers have been killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from the Hamas tunnels in five incidents in the past 18 days, and Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
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 Hamas tunnels. Gaza officials say 1,000 people have been killed in the Israeli offensive; Israeli military officials say hundreds of Hamas gunmen are among the dead. The IDF toll is 40 dead, six of them killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from tunnels in Israel. Three civilians have been killed by rocket and mortar fire from Gaza.
Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.