Mediators scramble to rescue talks as fighting continues

Mediators scramble to rescue talks as fighting continues

Israel said rejecting all Hamas demands, denying reports of negotiations over return of two soldiers' body parts

Smoke and fire rise following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Smoke and fire rise following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

As efforts to forge a permanent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas made little headway in Cairo Saturday, Palestinian terrorists launched rockets at southern Israel, while the Israeli Air Force struck terror targets in the Gaza Strip in response.

Hamas sources said five Palestinians were killed in 40 Israeli airstrikes on the coastal enclaves Saturday, as at least 24 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel, bringing to 52 the number of projectiles launched at the Jewish state since a tenuous 72-hour truce was broken early Friday by Gazan militants.

International mediators, meanwhile, were left scrambling to rescue the ceasefire talks. Israel was said to have rejected all of Hamas’s demands, many of them focused on easing access to Gaza. Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said Friday that Israel would not “reward” Hamas for using force against Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tied rehabilitation of Gaza with the demilitarizing of Gaza and the disarming of Hamas — a step Hamas rejects.

A Hamas spokesman said two of the Gazan dead were traveling by motorcycle through the Al-Maghazi refugee camp when they were hit. Three others were pulled from the rubble of the Al-Qassam mosque, located in the center of the enclave.

The Palestinian Interior Ministry said Israeli jets destroyed three mosques, at least two of which were Hamas-affiliated. Only the minaret was left standing at the huge Al-Qassam mosque in Nuseirat, an AFP photographer said.

Earlier Saturday, the IDF released footage of an air strike on a rocket launcher placed near a mosque in Gaza. The military noted that as the weaponry was placed outside the building, it took care not to damage the mosque in the strike.

Israel has destroyed mosques in other strikes, but says it only does so when they are used to conceal and store weaponry.

Resident Ibrahim Taweel said the Israeli military telephoned him at 3 a.m., warning him to evacuate his nearby home five minutes before the Al-Qassam mosque was attacked.

“I couldn’t tell all my neighbors, so I evacuated myself and my neighbor and after five minutes an F-16 fired one rocket and after that a bigger rocket destroyed the mosque,” he said.

In Israel, one civilian and a soldier were wounded on Friday, but no injuries or damage were reported on Saturday.

Israel said it had carried out more than 100 strikes in Gaza since Friday, 40 of them since midnight.

In the West Bank, fresh clashes broke out Saturday after the funerals of two Palestinian men shot dead by Israeli troops during protests against the Gaza operation on Friday, witnesses said.

Palestinian youths threw stones and Israeli troops responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

The 72-hour truce collapsed after mediators in Cairo failed to extend a ceasefire when it expired on Friday morning. Hamas and other Gaza groups fired dozens of rockets at Israel, ending the truce; Israel waited for more than two hours and then began firing back. Since then, conflicting reports have emerged on the progress being made in the talks in Cairo, with Israeli media quoting Egyptian and Hamas officials saying that Israeli envoys — who were recalled from Cairo on Friday — were expected in the Egyptian capital for another round of ceasefire talks on Saturday evening.

A senior Israeli official said Saturday that Jerusalem had no intention to renew ceasefire talks in Cairo on Saturday night, as long as rockets were being fired into Israeli territory.

The chairman of the Eshkol region, which borders the Gaza Strip and has been hard-hit by rockets in recent weeks, said Saturday that residents of the southern towns near the Gaza Strip “won’t be quiet until the end of the campaign which includes the neutralization of the rocket threat on our communities.”

“The prime minister and defense minister promised that they wouldn’t accept fire on the state of Israel — that’s not just a political guarantee, that’s a basic promise of the government to its residents and it must make it happen with full force,” Ynet quoted the southern leader, Haim Yellin, saying.

Since Saturday morning, 10 rockets fired from Gaza have struck the Eshkol region.

Egyptian media said Israel was also negotiating for the return of body parts of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, in return for freeing Hamas captives from the past few weeks. Israel’s Channel 2 said reports indicated Israel would return eight bodies and some 15 captured Hamas gunmen. Israeli officials were later quoted denying the reports, and branding them psychological warfare.

Hamas, which Israel, the US and EU designate a terror organization and which de facto controls Gaza, vowed no concessions on its demands.

“The occupier’s intransigence will get it nowhere and we will make no concessions on the demands of our people,” spokesman Fawzy Barhum said in a statement.

The lifting of Israel’s land and sea blockade, imposed in 2006 after Hamas captured an Israeli soldier, has been a key demand of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in Cairo talks. Israel and Egypt maintain the blockade to prevent Hamas smuggling in more weaponry and components for its war machine.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian official said on condition of anonymity Egypt and the Palestinians had reached a draft agreement for submission to Israel on Saturday.

It would see Egypt and the Palestinian Authority take control of the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, in which Hamas would essentially activate a unity deal signed with the PA in April.

Negotiations on the sea port, demanded by Hamas, would then be delayed and entrusted to the Palestinian Authority, with which Israel is prepared to deal.

Reduced fighting feeds hopes of new truce

Despite Saturday’s violence, combat between Israel and Gaza has not resumed at the same fierce intensity, feeding some hopes of a new truce bring agreed.

“Our hope is that the parties will agree to an extension of the ceasefire in the coming hours,” US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Acting US Middle East peace envoy Frank Lowenstein, in Cairo for some days, “is still trying to help the parties get a permanent ceasefire,” a US embassy official said.

US President Barack Obama told The New York Times in an interview published Saturday that there were limits to US influence on both sides to reach a solution to the decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu had a strong support base and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was weak domestically, Obama said.

“If he (Netanyahu) doesn’t feel some internal pressure, then it’s hard to see him being able to make some very difficult compromises, including taking on the settler movement,” Obama was quoted as saying.

“In some ways, Bibi is too strong (and) in some ways Abu Mazen is too weak to bring them together.”

read more: