Officials say Israel ‘not interested’ in ceasefire yet, still has many Hamas targets to hit

Some in government worry that international support for assault on Gaza terror groups will quickly wane if casualties rise

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on November 14, 2012. (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on November 14, 2012. (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)

Israeli officials said Saturday evening that Jerusalem is not currently interested in a ceasefire in the four-day conflict with Hamas, adding that the IDF’s campaign might be expanded and could continue for weeks, if necessary. Operation Pillar of Defense would only end after Hamas had been dealt a serious blow, they vowed, as the fourth day of the offensive came to an end.

Some analysts, by contrast, said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several of his top ministers would not in fact be opposed to a rapid halt to the campaign if the other side were to commit itself to a ceasefire.

“In parallel to the military effort, there is a diplomatic effort [to stop the rocket fire on Israel],” an Israeli government official told The Times of Israel on Saturday evening. “But the operation will continue until we can be sure that the people of Israel’s south will no longer live under constant fear of rockets — and that goal will be achieved, one way or another.”

The IDF’s OC Southern Command Tal Russo said earlier Saturday that Israel had delivered a serious blow to Hamas’s rocket infrastructure — and wiped out much of its long-range rocket capacity — but added that the IDF still had many targets left to hit. Hamas, he said, had built up “an impressive” arsenal.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Cairo on Saturday, where he met with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Hamas political chief Haled Mashaal in an effort to broker a ceasefire. Egypt is trying to convince Hamas to sign on to a proposal for a temporary end to the rocket fire, but Hamas is currently unwilling to discuss a cease-fire, officials close to the contacts said. Erdogan was trying to mediate between the two sides, but without tangible success thus far.

Egyptian defense officials have had “primary” contact with their Israeli counterparts, but so far Cairo has not engaged Israel on the political and diplomatic level, a Foreign Ministry official told The Times of Israel.

“Israel will go ahead [with the military offensive] as long as there’s massive rocket fire from Gaza. It’s not possible to stop unilaterally, while rockets are flying at our towns.”

While Hamas was probably interested in a ceasefire, the Israeli government is keen to continue striking at terrorist infrastructure in Gaza, according to a government official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Hamas probably wants a ceasefire by now. They want a time out — so that they can rest a bit, and then continue to shoot rockets at us next week. Israel is not interested in that,” the official told The Times of Israel. “We hope to come out of this operation with a new reality — that people in the south will no longer live under threat of rocket attacks.”

Operation Pillar of Defense has three main goals: bringing quiet to the south, establishing Israeli deterrence, and eradicating the long-range missile arsenal of Gaza terror groups, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Saturday. “The only way to live here in peace and security is to create a real deterrent by causing an overwhelming response, so that they don’t test us again,” he said Saturday.

If the IDF found it necessary to launch a wide-scale ground operation into Gaza, “it cannot be stopped in the middle; it needs to go all the way,” he said.

The foreign minister and other top Israeli ministers are “absolutely resolute” to continue and even intensify Operation Pillar of Defense, according to a source close to Liberman.

“They are convinced that this can’t just be another Operation Cast Lead, where we only do what’s necessary and then, after three or six months, Hamas rearms itself and we have the same problem,” the source told The Times of Israel. “This has got to stop. We can’t have a million, or even hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of our citizens under fire.”

Cast Lead, which began with air strikes in December 27, 2008, and continued with a ground operation into Gaza seven days later, lasted for three weeks and one day.

“It’s absolutely impossible to say that there will never ever be a single rocket fired at Israel again. But we need to restore our deterrence. It has been lost over recent years,” the source added.

Some Israeli analysts, however, said Netanyahu, Liberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak would not be against a cease-fire, if the opportunity would arise. The three convened Saturday evening at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to discuss further course of action.

Militarily and diplomatically to date, the leadership trio are said to believe, the offensive can be viewed as a resounding success, with several senior Hamas operatives eliminated and a significant blow inflicted to Hamas’s rocket and other military infrastructure.

If Jerusalem were to reach a ceasefire and restore calm to the south at this stage, analysts on Channel 2 news suggested on Saturday night, Netanyahu and his government would likely re-enter the pre-election campaign — temporarily suspended as the rockets fly — with their popularity boosted. If the campaign were to be expanded, and to include a major ground offensive, however, rising Israeli casualty figures and high numbers of Palestinian deaths could possibly turn Operation Pillar of Defense into a quagmire for Netanyahu, they said. It would therefore be likely, these and other analysts said, that Israel would now seek to de-escalate the situation.

Led by the US, much of the West to date seems to share Jerusalem’s position that Hamas bears prime responsibility for the current round of violence and has supported Israel’s right to defend itself. But Jerusalem is not confident that this would last if the conflict expands.

Some officials said that Israel has succeeded in its efforts to convince Western leaders of the righteousness of its cause. But others expressed fear that the messages of support and understanding could soon turn into calls for restraint and then outright criticism if Israel’s military operation comes to be perceived as overly aggressive or heavy-handed.

Along with the US, Britain, Germany, Canada and several other countries have pinned primary blame on Hamas, the officials noted.

“I wouldn’t say that international support for our operation is waning. Every time Hamas shoots a rocket at Jerusalem or Tel Aviv people understand what we’re doing, that we’re acting to defend our citizens,” a government official said Saturday.

The rocket that on Friday night reached the greater Jerusalem area “really takes the mask off Hamas’s face, if anyone still had any illusions,” this official added. “They fired an inexact weapon into city with hundred of thousands of residents, with many holy sites important to three world religions. Who knows where this could have landed? But they don’t care. In fact, the rockets landed in the West Bank and could have easily killed Palestinians. Again, these terrorists don’t care; they are nihilistic.”

On Saturday, Netanyahu spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.

Netanyahu told the leaders that no country in the world would agree to a situation in which its population lives under a constant missile threat. He also reportedly asked them if they had any suggestions for how to stop the rocket fire from Gaza, and elicited from them tacit support for Operation Pillar of Defense.

On Friday, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the rocket attacks from Gaza “are totally unacceptable for any government and must stop. Israel has the right to protect its population from these kinds of attacks.” Ashton acknowledged that Palestinian terrorist groups are responsible for the current crisis, but also urged Israel “to ensure that its response is proportionate.”

Netanyahu on Friday also spoke to US President Barack Obama, for the second time since the campaign started on Wednesday. The prime minister thanked Obama for the US’s steadfast support and its assistance in purchasing the Iron Dome missile defense system. Earlier last week, Netanyahu spoke to Ashton, French President Francois Hollande, UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, and Middle East Quartet representative Tony Blair.

‘International patience is very short. We’re walking on thin ice, and you’ll only know the ice is getting cracking when your feet are getting wet. And then it’s too late’

Over the weekend, Liberman spoke to his counterparts from the US, Russia and Romania to shore up support for Israel’s operation.

On Sunday, Netanyahu, Liberman and President Shimon Peres are scheduled to meet with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is set to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Recognizing that the support of Western countries could easily vanish if the death toll increases drastically or Israeli troops mistakenly hit a civilian target, a government official said, “We are aware of such scenarios, and we are doing our utmost to avoid any civilian casualties.”

A different official said that some individuals and organizations, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, are likely to censure Israel over a drawn-out military campaign with many civilian casualties.

“There are the usual suspects; there’s nothing we can do about them. But the international community learned a lesson from Goldstone,” the said, referring to a report authored by South African Judge Richard Goldstone that castigated Israel for war crimes allegedly committed during Cast Lead, including the false charge that the IDF deliberately killed civilians. A year and half later, Goldstone partially retracted his condemnation, though his co-authors did not.

The civil war currently raging in Syria, during which more than 30,000 people have been killed so far, would put into perspective any casualties caused by an Israeli operation in Gaza, the official said.

“I spoke to presidents from across the world, including President Obama — no-one doubts the justification of the operation,” Peres said Friday. “This is not the launch of a war but a justified defense of our civilians and the world stands with Israel.”

A Foreign Ministry official who deals routinely with organizations and governments hostile to Israel predicted that Western support for the offensive will not continue for much longer.

“International patience is very short. We’re walking on thin ice, and you’ll only know the ice is cracking when your feet get wet. And then it’s too late.”

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