Friday 30 November 2012

UN Palestine vote

Palestinians roar approval as UN votes overwhelmingly to recognize Palestine as a state; US blasts vote as 'unfortunate' and 'counterproductive'

The U.S. and Israel had warned UN recognition could delay achievement of an indepedent Palestinian state through peace talks with Israel.




Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after he addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the speech, which said the historic vote was the last chance for a two-state solution, "defamatory" and "venomous."

The United Nations voted overwhelmingly Thursday to upgrade the status of Palestine to nonmember state — rejecting warnings from the United States and Israel that the designation could damage prospects for peace.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the UN it was “being asked today to issue the birth certificate of Palestine” shortly before the General Assembly approved the measure 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions.

Wild celebrations erupted in the Palestinian territories following the vote, which altered Palestine’s status at the UN from an “entity” to a “nonmember observer state” — the designation held by the Vatican.

Though largely symbolic, the change gives some international recognition for Palestinian control of its disputed territory. Abbas called it the “last chance” to save the two-state solution.

But Israel warned that the vote could embolden Palestinian extremists and lead to more bloodshed.

Ron Prosor, Israel’s UN ambassador, accused the UN of trying to “break the 4,000-year-old bond” between the people of Israel and their land.

Secretary of State Clinton said the resolution “places further obstacles in the path of peace.”

But only a handful of countries sided with Israel, which opposed the measure in part because it could allow Palestinians to pursue war crime charges in the International Criminal Court. In an attempt to ward off such prosecutions, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation that would eliminate U.S. aid to the Palestinians if such charges are brought.


Palestinians wave Fatah and Palestinian flags during a rally in support of the Palestinian U.N. bid for observer state status in Gaza City Thursday. Without specificying how, Israel has vowed to respond to any effort to use the upgraded status to the Palestinians' advantage in their conflict. The vote paves the way for Palestinian access to the International Criminal Court, which could expose Israel to action on alleged war crimes and settlement building.

Before the vote, the United Nations’ official Twitter handle mistakenly tweeted the “urgency of reaching 1-state solution” — rather than a two-state solution. The tweet was deleted.

The UN vote was a historic triumph for the Palestinians, even though the successful petition was a downgrade from a year ago, when Abbas sought full member status.

Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in the West Bank and Gaza to cheer the UN’s decision.

Fared Al-Atrash, a Bethlehem lawyer, held his 5-year-old daughter on his shoulders .

“I brought her here tonight so she could hear President Abbas telling the world that we have a home of our own and we want to live in peace,” he said.

Hala Rihan, 8, and her brother Mohammed, 8, proudly waved Palestinian flags that were taller than they were.

“My children must learn when they are still young that we have our own country,” said their mother, Shireen.

Thursday 29 November 2012

UN Palestine vote

The Independent

Palestinian rivals unite to celebrate UN statehood vote


Thousands of Palestinians took to the streets throughout the West Bank and Gaza today to celebrate a United Nations General Assembly vote which was expected to indirectly recognise a Palestinian state, by upgrading the Palestinian Authority's status from that of observer to non-member state.

The rare diplomatic triumph united the governing Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas that dominates the West Bank and the rival Hamas Islamic Resistance Movement that rules Gaza. For the first time since Hamas seized control in 2007, warring factions joined forces in Gaza City, where Fatah staged a large, peaceful rally joined by representatives from across the spectrum of Palestinian politics.

By noon, hours before the vote in New York, crowds started gathering at open-air stages in towns throughout the West Bank to listen to music, poetry and political speeches and watch traditional Debka dancers.

A sense of history in the making increased as news filtered through of a growing number of Yes votes from European countries and Germany's switch from No to an abstention.

In Nablus, officials from Hamas and other groups joined senior members of the Fatah Revolutionary Council in a good-natured march through the city. "We carry a message to the whole world that says that we are capable of using all kinds of resistance. We are going to the UN, in order to protect our people, lands and prisoners," said Mahmud al-Aloul, a Fatah Central Committee member.

Thousands attended a similar rally in Hebron. In Bethlehem, residents prepared to stay up past midnight to watch President Abbas's speech and the UN vote projected on to an Israeli security wall near Rachel's Tomb.

In Ramallah, bright sunshine brought hundreds of people of all ages to an open-air stage in Yasser Arafat Square adorned with a huge banner proclaiming "UN: State of Palestine". Eight-year-old Hala Rihan and her brother Mohammed, six, proudly waved Palestinian flags. Their mother Shireen, a 29-year-old civil servant, said she was their age when Yasser Arafat first declared a Palestinian state and she wanted them to remember this day "for the rest of their lives".

"My children must learn when they are still young that we have our own country. I feel good today and I have great hope for our future – for the future of two countries, Israel and Palestine. We must learn to live with each other," she said.

Wasef Eriqat, 66, was the commander of PLO artillery forces in Lebanon during the 88-day Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982. A former Brigadier-General in the Jordanian army, he returned to his home village of Abu Dis in East Jerusalem after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1995.

"I feel very good today," Mr Eriqat told The Independent. "Israel is always saying that Palestinians are terrorists but, with this victory at the United Nations, we are showing the whole world that we are seeking peace and we want to be full members of the international community … If Israel seeks peace, we will stop all the fighting. If not, we will have to continue our struggle," he said.

Ziad Abu Ein, Palestinian deputy minister for prisoners' affairs, told The Independent that Britain's lobbying against non-member status, which ended only this week, had cast a pall over UK-Palestinian relations. "Britain is the country most responsible for the occupation, the most responsible for Palestinian suffering from this occupation. The British failure to vote for the resolution will lose them a lot of support in the Middle East," he said.

In New York, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, reiterated the importance of reviving the Middle East peace process. Speaking hours before the vote, he said: "Achieving the two-state solution, to which Israel and the Palestinians have committed, is long overdue." Mr Ban said the vote was a matter for member states, but added: "The goal remains realising the just and lasting peace for which generations of Palestinians and Israelis have been longing – a peace that will end the occupation that started in 1967, end the conflict and ensure that an independent, viable and sovereign State of Palestine lives side by side with a secure State of Israel."

In Jerusalem the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel was "prepared to live in peace with a Palestinian state" but Israeli security must be protected.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

UN Palestine vote: cue street parties

The Independent

UK will abstain on vote to recognise Palestine unless it receives assurances


Britain is preparing to abstain in tomorrow night’s United Nations vote to recognise a Palestinian state, the Foreign Secretary William Hague indicated today.

Mr Hague – who was criticised by MPs of all parties for his stance – is facing intense pressure from Gulf states to shift the UK’s position ahead of the UN general assembly meeting in New York.

Britain could also find itself isolated within the European Union if it refuses to support the Palestinian application for non-member observer status at the UN.

The vast majority of UN members, including France and Spain, are expected to support the application, although the move will be strongly opposed by the United States, and of course, Israel.

In a Commons statement, Mr Hague told the Palestinians they would only gain Britain’s backing if they promised an “immediate and unconditional” resumption of negotiations with Israel and pledged not to ask for the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to be extended over the Occupied Territories.

He said: “Up until the time of the vote itself, we will remain open to voting in favour of the resolution if we see public assurances by the Palestinians on these points. However, in the absence of these assurances, the United Kingdom would abstain on the vote.”

Mr Hague argued that if Palestine maintained the ICC demand it could “make a return to negotiations impossible”. He said Britain was still committed to a negotiated settlement with a “safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state”.

But he claimed: “If progress on negotiations is not made next year, then the two-state solution could become impossible to achieve.”

The shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, argued that it was unreasonable to expect the Palestinians make an unconditional commitment to resume talks while the Israelis were still building settlements on the West Bank, which are deemed illegal under international law.

“Statehood for the Palestinians is not a gift to be given but a right to be acknowledged,” he said.

“If the United Kingdom abstains tomorrow it will not be a measure of our growing influence, it will be confirmation of our growing irrelevance to meaningful engagement in the search for peace. Abstention tomorrow would be an abdication of Britain’s responsibilities.”

The former Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, said: “Britain's failure to support the motion will cause profound damage to our reputation in the Middle East and flies in the face of public opinion at home and abroad.”

Britain risks becoming increasingly isolated over issue, especially as a number of European countries have no come out in favour of the Palestinian bid. Spain became the latest today.

"Spain will vote 'yes' tomorrow to the Palestinian request in line with our history," Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told the parliament in Madrid.

The bid for non-member observer status comes 12 months after the President Mahmoud Abbas applied to the UN for full membership, a move that was vetoed by the Security Council. Non-member observer states are recognized as sovereign states, and are free to submit a petition to join as a full member at their discretion. The only other current non-member state is the Vatican.

The Conservative MP, Nicholas Soames, acknowledged the “fiendish difficulties” of the Middle East situation, but told Mr Hague he had adopted a “one-sided and grossly unfair” position.

Mr Hague told MPs he had appealed to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, whom he praised as a “courageous man of peace”, not to move the resolution, but to give the newly-elected Barack Obama the opportunity to launch a fresh peace initiative.

More than 100 MPs from across the political spectrum – including the former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw – have signed a parliamentary motion supporting UN recognition of Palestine.

Meanwhile, Palestinians are preparing to mark their most significant diplomatic achievement later today with a series of street festivals, parties and religious services.

Preparations were under way for celebrations across the West Bank on Thursday leading up to the UN vote, which is expected to be announced in the early hours of Friday morning. A large stage was under construction in the main street of Ramallah, where thousands of people are expected to join a street party with music and traditional Palestinian dancers beginning at noon and stretching into the night. In Jenin, celebrations will include Palestinians who are also Israeli citizens.

In Bethlehem, Christian Palestinians will lead a candle-lit vigil outside the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. A thanksgiving mass is scheduled for Sunday in the main Catholic church in Ramallah.

Most of the celebrations will be held far from Israeli territory, except for large banners that officials plan to display at across major landmarks in Israeli-controlled territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israeli officials are unlikely to welcome the slogan in Arabic, English and Hebrew declaring: “Occupied territory of the state of Palestine” draped across King Herod’s winter palace at Herodion, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Israel has decided to keep a low profile as they face certain defeat after an intense campaign to try and persuade the Palestinians to withdraw their UN application. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman will be in the United States today but will be attending a forum in Washington rather than the General Assembly debate.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told reporters in Ramallah that she was encouraged by the late surge of support from several European countries.

"This constitutes a historical turning point and opportunity for the world to rectify a grave historical injustice that the Palestinians have undergone since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948,” she said.

“Rather than being perceived as a substitute for negotiations, our efforts are consistent with the international community’s objective of achieving a peaceful solution whereby Palestine and Israel can live side by side in peace and security. All we want is freedom, dignity and self-determination,” she said.

Thursday is the 65th anniversary of the UN partition resolution creating two states in Palestine. Back then, the Arab countries voted against and immediately launched a military attack on the nascent state of Israel.

The bid for non-member observer status comes 12 months after the President Mahmoud Abbas applied to the UN for full membership, a move that was vetoed by the Security Council. Non-member observer states are recognized as sovereign states, and are free to submit a petition to join as a full member at their discretion. The only other current non-member state is the Vatican.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Was Arafat murdered?

The Independent

Bones of Arafat can solve riddle of his death

Matthew Kalman sees tomb of Palestinian leader broken open for poison investigation


The bones of the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat were uncovered from his tomb yesterday so that samples could be taken for analysis to see whether he was poisoned.

Mr Arafat died at the age of 75 in Percy military hospital near Paris in November 2004 from an unexplained illness. His wife refused to allow an autopsy and the French doctors who treated him never announced the cause of his death.

Many Palestinians suspect he was assassinated by Israel – an accusation that Israel strongly denies. Tawfiq Tirawi, the former Palestinian intelligence chief heading an official committee investigating Mr Arafat's death, told reporters in Ramallah that if evidence emerged that he had been murdered, the Palestinians would take the case to the International Criminal Court.

"Be confident that the body of Arafat was not touched by a non-Palestinian hand today," said Mr Tirawi as he described the partial exhumation in the mausoleum built in the Mukata compound where Mr Arafat spent the final years of his life. "When the results of the investigation are disclosed, we will find the killers," he vowed.

After drilling through a layer of concrete, workers began at daybreak digging through a metre of soil laid over the grave to reveal Arafat's skeleton.

Experts decided they could take the necessary samples without moving his remains. They were re-covered and then Palestinian dignitaries led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad held a simple wreath-laying ceremony.

The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, was absent because he was en route to New York for tomorrow's United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood. Acting on the orders of French magistrates, a team of Palestinian doctors took samples from the skeleton and handed them over to French, Russian and Swiss scientists for examination.

"It was a very distressing moment for me as a Palestinian," said Palestinian Health Minister, Hani Abdeen. "It wasn't really something nice to open the grave of somebody who has been buried for eight years to confirm the cause of his death."

"We did not know exactly what to expect because the burial was eight years ago. Experts in forensic medicine informed us we were going to see probably just a skeleton. This is what came to light," he said. "Twenty samples were taken. They were minute samples, biopsies. They were divided into four portions and each team was given one," Mr Abdeen explained.

"People are really anxious to know what was the cause of death. People are thinking that he was poisoned. If it was really due to a toxin that was administered, then they want to know, they want to reach the truth," he added.

The French murder inquiry began after an investigation last July by the Al-Jazeera TV network in which the Institut de Radiophysique in Lausanne, Switzerland said they had discovered significant traces of the rare radioactive element polonium-210 on the late leader's clothing and toothbrush provided by his wife, Suha. Polonium is highly poisonous and was used to kill former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006.

Mrs Arafat, who now lives with the couple's daughter in Malta, filed an official complaint asking the French authorities to open a criminal investigation into whether her husband was murdered.

Israel has always denied it had anything to do with his death, although many Palestinians believe he was poisoned on the instructions of his arch-enemy, Ariel Sharon, then Israel's prime minister.

Ordinary Palestinians told The Independent they had mixed feelings about the exhumation and where an investigation might lead.

"I disagree with opening the tomb because the truth was known in France and revealed by Al Jazeera. He was poisoned. There is no need for additional evidence," said Ahmad Abu Ala'am, 30, a former officer in Palestinian intelligence and a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades who spent three years in Mr Arafat's compound under the late leader's personal protection. "There is no doubt that Israel was involved in poisoning him but I believe that some Palestinian leaders also collaborated with Israel and they are involved in his killing. We need to reveal their names."

Monday 26 November 2012

UN Palestine vote

The Independent

Abbas due in New York ahead of critical UN vote on Palestinian statehood 'upgrade'


Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is due in New York to prepare for Thursday’s UN General Assembly vote to upgrade Palestine to a non-member state of the United Nations.

The result of the vote, which will be held on the 65th anniversary of the historic UN partition vote in 1947 that divided Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state, appears to be a foregone conclusion, with at least 150 of the 193 General Assembly members already committed in favour.

Despite intense last-minute pressure from Israel, the US and Britain, some European states including France appear willing to join those voting yes. The US Congress froze $200m (£125m) in Palestinian aid last year when a similar move was made at the UN Security Council. Some Israeli leaders have suggested punishing the Palestinians by crippling the finances of the Palestinian Authority or annexing West Bank territory.

“All our intelligence suggests that because of the American Congress restrictions and the likely response from the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority will find itself financially very badly affected by decisions made in response to the resolution. We just don’t believe it’s the right time,” Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt told the Independent.

American officials confirmed that they were still trying to persuade the Palestinians to cancel the move.

“We are actively trying to convince them that this is a bad idea and is not going to get them the results they ultimately seek,” said Geoffrey Anisman, spokesman for the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. “The US focus right now is on convincing the Palestinian Authority that the only way to achieve the goal it seeks is through negotiating.”

But Nabil Shaath, commissioner of international relations for Fatah, told diplomats in Ramallah on Monday the Palestinians were determined to go ahead.

“The Palestinians have the right to seek non-member state status at the UN,” said Mr Shaath.

Gaza: Deadly fantasy

Hamas victim dragged through the streets of Gaza City Tuesday by motorcycle was no collaborator, widow says
It was a sight that shocked the world — the corpse of Ribhi Badawi being dragged through the streets of Gaza City Tuesday by a motorcycle as Hamas gunmen fired into the air.


Palestinian gunmen ride a motorcycle as they drag the body of a man, who was suspected of working for Israel, in Gaza City.It was a sight that shocked the world — the corpse of Ribhi Badawi being dragged through the streets of Gaza City Tuesday by a motorcycle as Hamas gunmen fired into the air.

His crime? Collaborating with Israel to pinpoint Hamas targets.

But the charge wasn’t true, the militant’s grieving widow told The News.

Actually, Badawi, 37, had spent the last four years in a Hamas prison under armed guard. He was tortured for seven months into confessing that he was working for Israel.

“They burned (him) and broke his jaw and teeth,” said his widow, Kholoud Badawi. “He was hanged for 45 days by his arms and legs to make him confess. He confessed because of the torture.

“He told me every detail of what had happened to him and he gave me a diary he was writing,” she added.

Ribhi Badawi was no innocent, having belonged to the Jaljalat Brigades, an Islamic group that wanted the Palestinians ruled by strict religious law.

But he was sentenced to death in a show trial. His family appealed and asked that the sentence be reduced to 10 years in prison, and the court was due to rule the day he was executed.

“We hoped they would accept our appeal because they had no evidence — just his supposed confession,” she said.

As Kholoud and her five young children accepted the condolences of neighbors and friends in their tiny home in the poverty-stricken Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, friends and neighbors said Badawi was a kind, helpful man who made a living as a herbalist.

They said he once broke down a wall to save an elderly, disabled neighbor whose house was hit in an Israeli airstrike.

Badawi’s father, Ahmed, said his son hated the Israelis more than Hamas.

“My son could never have been an informer,” he said. “They say he got money from the Israelis. Look at his house. This is the house of a poor man. He helped everyone. Everybody liked him. I bless him.”

Hamas officials declined to comment. They referred reporters to comments last week by a Hamas leader who said such executions must not happen again.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Likud party primaries

The Independent

Netanyahu criticised for ceasefire


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing Likud party began selecting its candidates for January's general election today in a ballot of its 123,000 members that was widely seen as a snap referendum among his most loyal supporters on his handling of the latest confrontation with Hamas in Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu has come under fire from his own right-wingers for shying away from a land invasion, deciding instead to accept a ceasefire brokered by Egypt and the US.

Commentators have taunted Mr Netanyahu with his own criticism in 2009 of the previous government for halting Operation Cast Lead "without finishing the job". A group of reserve soldiers were reprimanded after lying down in the road to spell out the words "Bibi Loser" after the ceasefire was announced, referring to the prime minister's nickname.

A poll published by the Maariv newspaper on Friday showed 49 per cent of the Israeli public in general – rising to 68 per cent of voters within his own party – favoured continuing the military operation in which more than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed.

With more than 90 candidates competing for less than 30 Likud parliamentary seats, Mr Netanyahu was lobbying for key moderates, including several serving ministers, attempting to prevent a rightward drift and the election of Moshe Feiglin, head of Likud's hardline "Jewish Leadership" faction.

The Likud is planning to run a joint list with the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu ("Israel Our Home") party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.

The primaries had been hailed as a high-tech celebration with online voting at 132 polling stations, but a nationwide phone disruption caused by stormy weather left many party members fuming at their inability to vote.

Following the widespread internet malfunctions, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar called for the cancellation of Sunday's vote.

He said: "The voting process is ridiculous and must be stopped immediately."

Friday 23 November 2012

Analysis: Elections after Gaza

Israel returns to the campaign trail

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

Israeli politicians allowed themselves a 24-hour respite following Wednesday’s unprecedented ceasefire agreement with Hamas before resuming their campaign for the general election, now just 60 days away.

The ceasefire that ended eight days of bloody conflict appeared to be holding, except for one incident in which a Palestinian protestor was shot dead and 19 wounded when Israeli troops opened fire on a crowd the army said began throwing stones at soldiers and then “attempted to cross” the border.

A Hamas spokesman said the group would complain to Egyptian mediators, but both sides seemed inclined to play down the incident.

Before the violence erupted, sending more than a million Israelis into bomb shelters and 70,000 reservists to their military units, polls indicated that the re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was guaranteed.

Critics suggested that Mr Netanyahu attacked Gaza in order to increase his support at the ballot box – although recent Israeli politics teaches a different lesson. Three of Mr Netanyahu’s predecessors who went to the polls after going to war – Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert – all lost their positions shortly after launching military campaigns.

Ironically, the Israeli prime minister, long celebrated for his hawkish views, now faces the opposite problem – how to sell his own hardline supporters on his decision to cancel the much-heralded ground invasion of Gaza.

Commentators have been taunting Mr Netanyahu with his own criticism in 2009 of the previous government for halting Operation Cast Lead “without finishing the job.”

A poll published by the Maariv newspaper on Friday showed 49% of the Israeli public favoured continuing the military operation, but a much larger proportion of voters in Mr Netanyahu’s own party, some 68%, opposed the ceasefire.

Signalling a return to business as usual, Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz of the Kadima Party requested that parliament be recalled to debate Mr Netanyahu’s “failure.”

"The goals of his operation were not reached, and the next round is only a matter of time," Mr Mofaz said. "We should not have stopped at this stage. Hamas got stronger and we did not achieve deterrence."

Friday’s poll showed Mr Netanyahu’s position almost unchanged since early November, with a majority 69-seat block in the 120-seat Knesset parliament.

Perhaps the clearest indication that Mr Netanyahu’s victory is already sealed is the decision this week by his nemesis, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, not to run. Mr Olmert is wildly popular with many Israelis despite being convicted on corruption charges, being excoriated by a commission of inquiry over his handling of the Lebanon War in 2006, and bearing responsibility for Israel’s handling and subsequent international isolation over the last invasion of Gaza in 2009.

Mr Olmert apparently concluded from his own polling that he would be unable to unseat Mr Netanyahu in January.

Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, is expected to announce her return to politics next week at the head of a new centreist party. It will not affect Mr Netanyahu but will further splinter the opposition, already hopelessly divided among several parties and without a credible alternative for the premiership.

The now-tiny Left in Israel hopes the fallout from the conflict will help them challenge Mr Netanyahu’s economic policies, which have brought vast wealth to a few tycoons and stabilized Israel’s once-notoriously volatile economy but failed to improve the lot of the salaried middle-class.

Avshalom Vilan, a former elite commando and former Knesset member for the left-wing Meretz party, said a “country fighting for its life, spending vast amounts of money on its defence” cannot also pay to improve health and education.

“The huge cost of this single one-week operation demonstrates that the resources required to deal with social issues are swallowed up by security demands,” said Mr Vilan. “There is no progress on social issues without progress on diplomatic issues. They are all connected.”

Thursday 22 November 2012

Gaza ceasefire: The morning after

The Independent

Ceasefire appears to hold as Palestinians celebrate end of eight days of conflict


As a hard-won ceasefire in Gaza appeared to be holding, ending eight days of conflict in which some 150 Palestinians and six Israelis died, Israeli forces swooped on Palestinian suspects in the West Bank early today, arresting 55 people and vowing “to prevent the infiltration of terrorists into Israeli communities.”

Israeli officials would not confirm whether the arrests were directly linked to Wednesday’s bomb attack in Tel Aviv, which won plaudits from Hamas, although no group has yet formally admitted responsibility.

The people of Gaza and their leaders re-emerged onto the streets to observe the wreckage left by a week of ferocious bombardment as Israelis shared their relief that the ceasefire had forestalled a massive Israeli ground invasion.

Addressing a victory rally in Gaza City, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh applauded his supporters for making Israel “scream with pain.”

It was “the resistance and strength of the Palestinian people that stopped Israel from sending troops into Gaza,” Haniyeh said, declaring the day a national holiday. “The idea of attacking Gaza is gone and, with the help of God, will never return."

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told police chiefs that Israel was “giving the ceasefire a chance” but remained "ready to act should the quiet be violated.”

“Just as we did during this operation, we will decide when and how to act, and against whom,” he warned.

In snap polls, a significant majority on both sides remained sceptical that the ceasefire was a good idea, or that it would hold.

In Ramot, near Beersheba, Rafael Gana was helping clear up the debris after a rocket scored a direct hit on his neighbour’s house just 20 minutes before the ceasefire on Wednesday night.

“I believe in peace, and I want peace, and I think the Palestinians deserve their own state just like any other people, but experience tells us that this ceasefire will never hold and we will be right back here under rocket fire in a few months,” said Mr Gana.

That fear seemed to be confirmed by Islamic Jihad leader Muhammad al-Hindi.

"We have reached a dead end in the peace process and now we are in the trenches of jihad and resistance," Mr al-Hindi told the Gaza City rally.

Wednesday 21 November 2012


Khaled Meshaal's suicide bomb

By Matthew Kalman

JERUSALEM - Don't be fooled by the victory slogans of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Cairo or the scenes of celebration in Gaza on Wednesday.

The bomb that exploded on Bus 142 in King Saul Boulevard next to the Israeli army headquarters, Ministry of Defence and Tel Aviv's museum, law courts and opera house, was not a suicide attack, but from the point of view of Hamas, the hundreds of nails it contained might as well have been prepared for the group's own coffin.

Hamas has now committed diplomatic suicide. The Islamic Resistance Movement is about to undergo the humiliating procedure of having its weapons extracted. It is unlikely to survive the operation in its current form.
The M-75 and Fajr-5 rockets aimed at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv last week gave Israel no choice other than to neuter the militant monster now camped on its border. The US and Europe are firmly in agreement.

The eight days of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defence have been hell for the Palestinians in Gaza, but the international community places the blame for their suffering squarely on Hamas. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this week described Israelis near Gaza as “living in fear and terror,” a situation he described as “unacceptable, irresponsible and reckless.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announcing the ceasefire on Wednesday, reserved the right to renew military action at any time. "I realize that there are citizens who expect a harsher military action and we may very well need to do that. But at present, the right thing for the State of Israel is to exhaust this possibility of reaching a long-term cease-fire," he said.

If Hamas carries out another attack on Israel or tries to re-arm, Netanyahu's decision not to invade now has given him international backing to wipe out Hamas completely next time around.

"Any serious long-term deal that comes out of this has got to ensure that Hamas is not re-armed," UK Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt told me in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

“We can’t go on as we are. There has to be a sustainable Gaza and that clearly implies that the missiles that are smuggled through the tunnels – that’s got to stop," said Burt. "The only way Gaza can move forward is if it is no longer a base for these sort of attacks and then we can start to think of the future of Gaza another way."

Burt was clear that the entire supply chain from Iran through Sinai via Sudan must be closed down and that the international community would help achieve that.

"Clearly there is a route," Burt told me. "All those involved in the route have an obligation to make sure that this stops and Israel is right to insist upon that.”

European governments agree. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels this week: “We need to find a long-term solution to Gaza. We have to find a way to prevent the kind of violent rocket attacks that we've seen.”

Even Egypt, whose Muslim Brotherhood government has close historic and doctrinal ties to Hamas, cannot risk its own stability by allowing Sinai to be the smuggling route for Hamas's armoury.

“Sinai right now is an unfolding catastrophe,” said a senior European diplomat who asked not be identified.

Hillary Clinton did not mention Hamas by name in Jerusalem on Tuesday, but her meaning was clear.

“The rocket attacks from terrorist organizations inside Gaza on Israeli cities and towns must end and a broader calm be restored,” she said. “The goal must be a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security and legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

She pointedly praised “President Morsi's personal leadership and Egypt's efforts thus far. As a regional leader and neighbor, Egypt has the opportunity and responsibility to continue playing a crucial and constructive role in this process.”

Egypt is still supporting Hamas in public, but western diplomats say that behind the scenes Morsi applied the intense pressure that persuaded Hamas to sign Wednesday's deal. Hamas's diplomatic isolation is almost complete, and with the attack on Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Hamas may have kissed its last shreds of domestic support goodbye.

Palestinians are overwhelmingly opposed to a renewal of attacks against Israeli civilians.

A poll carried out in early November for the Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communications Center showed 65% of Palestinians in favor of “peaceful negotiations” or “non-violent resistance” compared with just 28% who wanted a return to “armed resistance” – as the Palestinians call terror attacks.

The same poll revealed that Palestinians in Gaza were already wearying of their Islamic Resistance Group government before the current round of fighting began, with 40% saying they would vote for the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with Hamas support at just 22.4%. In the West Bank, support for Hamas was even lower at 16.6%.

Most Palestinians would reluctantly accept the deal Israel is currently offering - a demilitarized Gaza in return for open borders and a chance to start again. As far as the extremists are concerned, there is now little to choose between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas has now followed Fatah in negotiating with the Zionist entity, and - worst sin of all - agreeing to stop armed attacks. The remaining supporters of the Islamic Resistance Group are asking what happened to the Hamas promise of constant jihad until the liberation of Palestine?

The growing gulf between the militants - now in a dwindling minority - and the vast majority of Palestinian public opinion was sharply illustrated by Ziad Nakhleh, deputy leader of the Islamic Jihad just this week, complaining about Israel's demand that he be stopped from acquiring more weapons.

"Smuggling weapons is seen as if it is smuggling drugs," Nakhleh protested. "We say our people has the right to get weapons by all means. Without them, we won't be able to stand steadfast, and we won't be able to bomb the capital of the Zionist entity."


After 8 days, the Israeli Foreign Ministry springs into action - just in time for the conflict to end

Opening of Israel Government Press Office Center in Ashkelon

(Communicated by the GPO and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

The Government Press Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have, today (Wednesday, 21 November 2012), opened a press center in Ashkelon in order to better assist the international and Israeli press in covering Operation Pillar of Defense from southern Israel.

The press center is currently open and will operate from the lobby of the Holiday Inn Ashkelon<> (9 Yekutiel Adam St.; see link for map & directions) daily and until the end of hostilities, 24 hours a day.

The press center will organize daily briefings, press tours, provide current information updates and is here to respond to press requests. The center may be contacted at 08-6748802<>.

Representatives at the press center include:

Nitzan Chen, Government Press Office Director, 050-6236213

Akiva Tor, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 050-6203968

Miri Belisha, Government Press Office, 050-6205402.

Day 8: Ceasefire

The Independent

Israelis and Palestinians agree ceasefire despite Tel Aviv bus bomb leaving 20 people injured


Hours after a bomb ripped through a bus in Tel Aviv, apparently sinking all hope of ending eight days of violence in Gaza, Hillary Clinton and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr announced a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

There were few details released about the deal, which came into effect at 9pm local time (7pm UK time) and followed a frantic final day of diplomacy in which Mrs Clinton shuttled between Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo to help seal the seal.

Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem indicated that an immediate truce, if it held, would be followed by a staged departure of some 60,000 Israeli troops deployed along the Gaza border, followed by a gradual lifting of the trade and passenger restrictions imposed by Israel on Gaza in return for the gradual disarming of militant groups in the Hamas-controlled enclave.

Addressing reporters in the Egyptian capital, Mrs Clinton pointedly praised the “responsibility and leadership” of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who played a key role in applying pressure to Hamas, just as US President Barack Obama brought all his weight to bear on Israel, to accept the truce.

“This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt's new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone for regional stability and peace,” she said at a joint news conference with her Egyptian counterpart, Mohamed Kamel Amr, adding that the deal was designed “to consolidate this progress, improve conditions for the people of Gaza, provide security for the people of Israel”.

Now comes the tough job of repairing the damage wreaked on Gaza in eight days of ferocious bombing, while maintaining the fragile truce between the two sworn enemies. More than 150 Palestinians have been killed; five Israelis have been lost their lives.

Israelis and Palestinians had waited anxiously all day to see whether a sharp spike in violence would be the climax of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence after eight bloody days or whether the nails hidden in a Tel Aviv bus bomb would also tear apart the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire plan just as it was due to go into effect.

The final hours of the confrontation proved to be some its bloodiest, with at least 18 Palestinian dead and six Israelis wounded.

At noon, an explosion ripped through a Number 142 bus without warning as it passed through King Saul Boulevard, the military and cultural artery of Israel’s populated heartland.

More than 20 people were injured, two seriously, as black smoke billowed into the air above Israel army headquarters, the Ministry of Defence, and Tel Aviv’s opera house, law courts and art museum.

Police cast a dragnet over the city, searching for two women that some eyewitnesses suspected of planting a bomb and then escaping. The nearby Azrieli Mall was closed and security personnel across the country were placed on high alert.

Two suspects were arrested several hours later on a road leading to the West Bank.

“We have been on alert for the past week, prepared for the possibility of incidents, of terror attacks, like this,” Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino told reporters at the scene.

It was the first attack for several years in Tel Aviv, though it has been targeted by Hamas rockets in the past week, all of which were intercepted.

“There was a horrible explosion. We were sure at first that it was a strike on Tel Aviv and the sirens just didn’t go off,” said Tomer Simon, whose office overlooks the scene.

“I opened my office window and saw the bus wrecked. I ran and tried to help those who were injured as much as I could. All the windows of the bus were smashed,” Mr Simon told the Israeli Ynet news website.

Last Saturday, Al-Aqsa, the Hamas TV station, released a video taunting Israelis in Hebrew: “We miss the suicide bombings. Wait for us at bus stops and cafes.”

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri welcomed the explosion. Celebratory sweet cakes were handed out in Gaza's main hospital.

”Hamas blesses the attack in Tel Aviv and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli Gaza,“ Mr Abu Zuhri told Reuters. ”Palestinian factions will resort to all means in order to protect our Palestinian civilians in the absence of a world effort to stop the Israeli aggression.“

Meanwhile, Hamas rained down more than 115 rockets across southern Israel, sending people running for cover all day. One barrage aimed towards Beersheba was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system. A house in Beer Tuvia was struck twice. Seven people were seriously injured.

Israeli forces kept up a continuous bombardment of more than 100 targets across the Gaza Strip, including four rocket-launching cells in Khan Younis and Jabalia. At least eight people were killed by Israeli airstrikes that demolished several houses and targeted smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border.

The army said it also attacked “several buildings that belong to senior Hamas operatives and serve as command and control centers.”

A four-year-old child was killed and her mother wounded in an Israeli airstrike on al-Nuseirat refugee camp. A two-year old child was killed in an airstrike on Nima tower block in Gaza City, which houses the offices of Agence France-Presse. Foreign reporters protested to the Israelis, saying they were being deliberately targeted. The Israeli army said they had destroyed a militant communications centre hidden in the building.

”The population lives in constant fear; there is no safe space remaining in Gaza,” reported UNRWA, and blamed “intensive tank fire in the border areas” for “creating panic among the population.”

In Cairo, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arrived from meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leader to encourage negotiations for a long-term armistice that would end the fighting and demilitarise the Gaza Strip under joint US-Egyptian-Israeli supervision.

Hamas now faces a solid Israeli-US-European coalition with Egyptian support.

“Any serious long-term deal that comes out of this has got to ensure that Hamas is not re-armed,” Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt told The Independent in Jerusalem. “We can’t go on as we are. There has to be a sustainable Gaza and that clearly implies that the missiles that are smuggled through the tunnels – that’s got to stop. Clearly there is a route. All those involved in the route have an obligation to make sure that this stops and Israel is right to insist upon that.”

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Day 7: Rockets in Beersheba

The Independent

While ceasefire talks gather pace, the death toll continues to rise

Matthew Kalman finds support for Benjamin Netanyahu's aggression in the besieged town of Beersheba, southern Israel

A ceasefire was expected to be announced last night ending seven days of bloodshed in and around Gaza that has claimed the lives of at least 139 Palestinians and four Israelis, and left nearly 1,000 injured.

"An agreement for calm has been reached. It will be declared at 9pm and go into effect at midnight," Hamas official Ayman Taha told Reuters from Cairo, where diplomatic efforts have been focused.

Israeli warplanes and artillery continued to pound the Gaza Strip while Hamas and its allies launched dozens of rockets into Israel yesterday as a tag team of international diplomats converged on Cairo and Jerusalem to press both sides into a truce.

An announcement was expected in Cairo last night that the fighting would end at midnight, local time.

Details emerging from the Egyptian-brokered plan suggested a two-year ceasefire guaranteed by a joint Egyptian-US-Israeli mechanism. Hamas wanted an immediate, unconditional truce and the opening of Gaza's borders. Israel insisted on a long-term agreement underwritten and enforced by international guarantors.

As darkness fell on the seventh day of violence, both sides appeared to be pressing hard right up to the possible cessation of hostilities.

Hamas launched repeated barrages of rockets, including for the second time an M-75 missile aimed at Jerusalem that nearly hit the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.

An 18 year-old Israeli soldier was reported to have been killed while a civilian was seriously injured when rockets struck a shop and an apartment building in Ashkelon, and a woman was hurt in a strike on a house in Rishon Le Zion, near Tel Aviv.

Israel dropped thousands of leaflets on northern Gaza in the late afternoon instructing locals "for your own safety to evacuate your residences immediately and move towards central Gaza city" – an apparent prelude to an extended aerial or ground operation against rocket launchers in the area.

The Israeli army said it targeted "11 terrorist squads," 30 underground rocket launchers and a safe house containing weapons and ammunition. Other targets included the Islamic Bank and smuggling tunnels.

Meanwhile, a Who's Who of international diplomacy led by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, and the British Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt, criss-crossed Israel while 11 foreign ministers from the Arab League and Turkey paid an unprecedented visit to Gaza.Israeli leaders insisted that nothing short of an enforceable armistice would end the fighting.

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, threatened "Operation Defensive Shield 2" in Gaza, referring to Israel's 2002 incursion into the West Bank during the intifada uprising.

"We are not looking for a ceasefire," said the Israeli Environment Minister, Gilad Erdan, hours before the fighting was due to end. "What we are trying to advance today is to achieve long-term quiet and security with international backing and guarantees. As long as that is not achieved, the operation will continue."

The day began with a barrage of rockets fired from Gaza, including 16 aimed at Beersheba at 8am. Nine were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system and three of them hit a bus, car and house in the city.

The driver of the bus on Tuviyahu Boulevard instructed his passengers to take cover when the sirens wailed. The rocket landed right in front of him, shattering the bus windows and sending thousands of ball-bearings shooting in all directions. Yehiel Navon, a 22-year-old salesman, came out of his home find the windscreen and bodywork of his Hyundai Accent riddled with holes.

"When the siren sounded, I took cover in our safe room," Mr Navon told The Independent.

"There was a huge boom. I came out and saw the bus outside my house completely destroyed. My car was ruined, full of holes drilled by shrapnel and ball-bearings that ripped straight through the chassis. It's a miracle no one was seriously injured."

Lilian Peretz, a long-time Beersheba resident whose three sons have been called up to the reserves, said that if the armistice does take hold, and Israel is able to stop further rocket attacks without invading Gaza, it will be a huge political success for the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces re-election in January.

"We can't live this way with rockets falling on our heads. I don't want the army to go into Gaza. We'll just have more dead Israeli boys and more kidnapped soldiers. We don't want war, we just want quiet," said Ms Peretz.

"I don't like Netanyahu. I didn't vote for him and I urged other people not to vote for him. He doesn't care about the poor and the weak in Israeli society. But he's done this right."

Monday 19 November 2012

Gaza Day 6: Update - Israeli envoy in Cairo

The Independent

Gaza counts its dead as Israel plans invasion


Gaza suffered its bloodiest day since Israel launched a military offensive in the Hamas-controlled enclave, with a sharp escalation in the ferocity of attacks from both sides amid frenzied last-minute diplomacy to try and forestall an Israeli ground assault.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed a “significant expansion” of Israel’s military onslaught, even as an Israeli envoy was reported to be travelling to Cairo for ceasefire talks with Egyptian mediators.

Nabeel Sha’ath, a senior Fatah official, has been dispatched to Gaza by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to intercede with the leaders of the rival Hamas group.

The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has joined the chorus of prominent officials calling for a ceasefire as the pounding of Gaza entered its sixth day.

Fresh strikes continued this morning with some sources claiming three rockets fired from Gaza hit the Israeli town of Ashkelon.

He is expected to visit Cairo to join talks aimed at bringing an end to the current escalation of the ongoing conflict - which has already claimed the lives of eighty-six Palestinians and three Israelis in six days.

The Israeli army said it had targeted 80 sites overnight, among them police stations, weapons facilities and militant-owned buildings.

At least 24 Palestinians were killed by Israeli air and artillery attacks during yesterday – and Palestinian sources said 18 people were killed in the raids overnight.

Yesterday was the bloodiest since Operation Pillar of Defence began last Wednesday with the assassination of the Hamas military chief, Ahmed al-Jabari. Israel said the commander of the Hamas rocket unit was among yesterday’s targets.

Eleven Palestinian civilians were reported killed when an Israeli missile levelled their home in Gaza City’s Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in an apparent strike against the home of a senior Hamas militant. The Palestinian Ma’an News Agency said that four women and four children from the same family were among the dead.

The Israel Foreign Press Association, meanwhile, lodged an official complaint with the Israeli army after six journalists were injured, one seriously, when Israeli missiles destroyed the offices and studio of two television stations linked to Hamas in Gaza City high-rises that also house Sky News Arabic and other international media bureaus.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Israel had bombed the Al-Quds bureau “because it had enraged the Zionists by its coverage” of Israel’s “crimes in Gaza.” Both pro-Hamas networks continued broadcasting from other locations, but their programmes were interrupted by messages from the Israeli army warning Gaza residents to stay away from Hamas installations and personnel.

At least four Israelis were injured as Palestinian groups unleashed repeated barrages of rockets at Beersheba, Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod throughout the day. There were several direct hits on homes and cars. One Grad rocket hit the roof of a four-storey apartment block in Ashkelon and drilled through to the second floor.

“The apartment was torn to pieces. It’s a miracle I am still alive,” 71-year-old father of nine Malai Molalem told The Independent, huddling in a bomb shelter as the hollow boom of falling rockets sounded again and again.

Hamas fired two long-range Fajr 5 missiles at Tel Aviv, 40 miles away, making four attempts in three days. They were both destroyed by the Iron Dome missile defence system.

Addressing the Israeli cabinet in Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu said Israel had attacked more than 1,000 targets since Wednesday and was “achieving significant hits on weapons aimed at Israeli citizens, as well as on those who use these weapons and those who dispatch them.”

“The IDF is prepared for a significant expansion of its operations,” Mr Netanyahu warned as the cabinet approved the mobilisation of 75,000 troops. Roads were blocked as thousands of reservists and military transporters loaded with tanks and armoured cars rumbled southwards.

With rumours of an imminent ground offensive, other countries in the region moved to try and find a negotiated settlement.

In Cairo, President Mohammed Morsi was reported to be putting intense pressure on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to agree to a ceasefire. Egyptian officials confirmed that an Israeli envoy had arrived in the city but radicals on both sides appeared to be digging in their heels.

Ziad Nakhleh, deputy leader of Islamic Jihad, told the Al Hayat daily it was time to teach Israel a lesson.

“We don’t fear them, the resistance is too strong and capable of confronting them,” said Mr Nakhleh. “We hit the belly of Israel. The prime minister and leaders of Israel were forced to go to shelters. Israel wants calm. Egypt wants it to stop the bloodshed. We also want to preserve our dignity as Palestinians. The siege on Gaza Strip should be lifted, the crossings should be opened, the Palestinians should be treated well. We will not accept a humiliating offer.”

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Israel sought “a long-term arrangement” and laid out strict conditions for any possible ceasefire.

“The first and absolute condition for a truce is stopping all fire from Gaza,” said Mr Liberman before meeting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Sunday, adding that all militant factions would have to commit to cease rocket fire and there could be no further smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

In London, Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Israel that past experience proved it risked losing the support even of its closest allies if it embarked on a ground invasion. He today repeated his calls for a ceasefire.

His comments were echoed by President Obama, who told reporters Sunday that it would be “preferable” if Israel exercised its right to self-defence “without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza.”

Gaza Day 6: Death toll rises

The Independent

Ceasefire hopes slim after death toll passes 100

Hamas sticks to demand for end to Israeli blockade as UN chief arrives for talks

The death toll in Gaza soared above 100 yesterday on the sixth day of Israel's military operation, despite frantic diplomatic efforts in Cairo to end the fighting.

Inside the beleaguered Hamas-controlled enclave, Israeli aircraft and artillery pounded what the army described as "terrorist targets", but many civilians, including children, were among the victims. The Israeli army said it had attacked 1,400 targets, including individual militants, weapons storage, production facilities and smuggling tunnels.

An Israeli strike on the Al-Shorouk tower block housing several international media bureaux unleashed a furious response from journalists in Gaza and abroad. Militant group Islamic Jihad later conceded that one of its most senior figures had been killed in the attack.

Yesterday's strikes took the number of Palestinians killed since the Israeli operation began last Wednesday to 100, including 53 civilians, Gaza health officials say. Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza. Palestinian militants unleashed more than 100 rockets into southern Israel yesterday.

Hopes of an imminent ceasefire seemed slim yesterday as the Hamas leaders stuck to demands for a lifting of Israel's five-year blockade. UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo to appeal for calm as Turkish and Qatari officials joined mediation efforts to end the hostilities.

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, dispatched to Gaza in a show of support for the Palestinians last week, was cautiously optimistic: "Negotiations are going on as we speak, and I hope we will reach something soon that will stop this violence and counter-violence," he said. "I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of negotiation [means] it is very difficult to predict."

Talks looked set to be difficult, however, with Hamas making sweeping demands that would see it emerge stronger following this latest round of violence. Hamas, bolstered by the Arab Spring movements and the rise of the Islamists in Egypt, is seeking an end to the five-year blockade of Gaza, and an end to targeted assassinations. Israel, meanwhile, is seeking assurances of a long-term ceasefire on the Palestinian side, and international guarantees that Hamas will not simply shift its base of operations to the Sinai. It has warned that it will continue the air campaign as long as the rocket fire continues, and ground troops have massed on the border.

But exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal remained defiant yesterday, insisting that while the militant group was not seeking an escalation, it would not cede ground. "We don't accept Israeli conditions because it is the aggressor," he told reporters in Egypt. "We want a ceasefire along with meeting our demands."

Israel's three top decision-makers – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – had ended a night-long meeting at 4am yesterday with a decision to give more time for Egyptian mediation before invading. A senior Israeli official told Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid the odds were "50-50" between a ceasefire and a ground operation.

Polls show a majority of Israelis back their government, but Mr Netanyahu may be running out of time. Echoing warnings from President Obama, David Cameron and other leaders, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief of staff, and Giora Eiland, a former general and national security adviser, said there was no need to invade Gaza and urged the government to negotiate.

"An agreement with Hamas could be reached within a few days, and it would be preferable to a ground operation," said Mr Eiland.

Turkish and Qatari officials have joined mediation efforts to end the latest round of hostilities.

Death and hope: Day 6 dawns

Letter from Jerusalem: All eyes are on Cairo to forestall Israeli invasion


I awoke early in Jerusalem to a rare few minutes of calm. The attacks on Gaza continued throughout last night, bringing the number of people killed to more than 90. However, no rockets were fired from Gaza during the night and today, at first, the Israeli air strikes appeared to have stopped.

Then at 6.26am, it all started up again. The haunting refrain of “Code Red, Code Red” broke through the morning radio news programme as sirens began wailing and Hamas rockets started raining down on Israel’s southern towns. One hit a school in Ashkelon, where children had already been sent home.

In Gaza, Israeli warplanes and artillery resumed their attacks on what they said were terrorist targets — including a sports stadium used to launch rockets —but also hitting dozens of innocent civilians.

Twenty Palestinians were reported killed by noon, the death toll on the sixth day of fighting looking likely to surpass the 29 killed yesterday, who included five women and four children from one family in Gaza City.

The fighting appeared to intensify in proportion to rumours of an impending ceasefire. Yesterday I saw reservists and columns of armoured vehicles streaming into the closed military zone declared by Israel east of Gaza as a staging post for 30,000 troops mobilised for its planned ground invasion.

Now all eyes are on Cairo, where United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon was expected today to join Egypt’s president Mohammed Mursi in pressuring Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to accept a ceasefire and forestall an Israeli invasion that will inevitably lead to hundreds more Palestinian deaths.

A massive majority of Israelis support Operation Pillar of Defence so far, but there is a growing groundswell of opinion among former generals as well as opposition critics, urging prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to invade. The final decision on that, it seems, rests with Hamas.