Israel rules out cease-fire until Hamas stops missile barrage
BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip — Fears of a possible Israeli ground invasion rose in the Gaza Strip on Thursday as the Israeli military issued thousands of warnings by telephone to residents of the coastal enclave's northeast corner, telling them to leave their border-area homes and stay away.
The instructions were delivered as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told lawmakers that a cease-fire with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that is the main target of a three-day-old Israeli military offensive in Gaza, is “not even on the agenda.” Netanyahu instead vowed to increase airstrikes against Hamas, which controls Gaza, until it stops firing rockets into Israel. He said in a nationally televised address that Israelis should expect “further stages later on.”
An Israeli defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the military is envisioning a limited incursion, although other options are under consideration.
Israeli jets continued their assault on Gaza, striking 220 sites and bringing the Palestinian death toll in the operation to 87, according to the health ministry in Gaza.
Hamas and other militant groups fired more than 190 rockets at Israel, the military said, sending Israelis in the Dead Sea region and as far away as Netanya, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv, running to bomb shelters. Four Hamas rockets were fired at Jerusalem; two were intercepted, and two landed in open areas.
Israeli officials and residents of the country's south, many of whom have spent hours in bomb shelters in recent days, pressed for tough measures against Hamas to stop the barrage of rocket fire. Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin suggested cutting off water and electricity to the besieged strip of 1.7 million people, according to Israeli media reports.
“We have long days of fighting ahead of us,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.
As the hostilities continued, President Obama called Netanyahu and “reiterated the United States' strong condemnation of continuing rocket fire into Israel by Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza and reaffirmed Israel's right to defend itself against these attacks,” according to a White House statement. Obama expressed concern about the risk of further escalation and said all sides should do everything they can to protect the lives of civilians, the statement said.
There have been no deaths in Israel, where many Palestinian rockets have landed in open areas or been intercepted by the country's missile defense system. The death toll in Gaza included 22 children, 15 women and 12 elderly people, and more than 500 people have been injured, according to the Gaza health ministry.
Israeli leaders blame Hamas for the high number of civilian deaths. The military leaders in Hamas live alongside their families, and the group hides its weapons in neighborhoods and fires rockets from backyards and agricultural fields.
In response to the mounting casualties in Gaza, the Egyptian government opened the Rafah land crossing between the strip and the Sinai Peninsula to allow ambulances to leave. Some Gaza residents with Egyptian relatives and documents were being allowed to exit into Egypt.
Speaking in China, Secretary of State John Kerry said he had contacted Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as other leaders in the region, to discuss the possibility of a truce.
An Egyptian-brokered cease-fire ended the last major Israeli military offensive on Gaza in late 2012.
Israeli Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said that the army has been building its forces along the Gaza border for the past three days and that they are in “defensive mode.” But he added that the troops “are going through procedures to address a potential ground force operation. The Israeli military does not want to go there, but they will if they need to.”
Shaul Bartal, a military analyst and retired major who served in various Israeli military positions in the West Bank, said that what happens in the next few days will determine whether the Israeli military conducts a ground invasion in Gaza. Israel occupied the territory for 38 years until 2005, when it withdrew its settlements and soldiers.
“They have two options,” Bartal said. “Go into Gaza but not enter the cities, or to go deep inside, finish the job of the previous two ⅛Israeli military⅜ operations in 2008 and 2012, and retake the Gaza Strip. But I do not think it is in Israel's best interest to do that.”
“I believe the army's goal is to kill the maximum number of Hamas members, so they will learn their lesson and, in the end, give the Israeli people the silence and security that they need,” Bartal said.