Israel and Gaza militants to pause attacks, but iInvasion Is still seen as likely

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TEL AVIV, Israel — After nine days of Israeli aerial assaults that have killed more than 200 people in Gaza, Israel and militant groups in the territory late Wednesday said they would suspend the attacks for five hours today as a humanitarian gesture, at the request of the United Nations.

But a senior Israeli military official said the likelihood of a ground invasion to eliminate militants’ rockets launched from Gaza was “very high.” The official, who has been briefing Israeli ministers who make strategic decisions, said, “If you want to efficiently fight terrorism, you must be present, boots on the ground.” He said his assessment was based on “the signals I get” and the diminishing returns of aerial bombardments. An Israeli takeover of Gaza is “not a huge challenge,” he said, estimating that it would take “a matter of days or weeks,” but that preventing a more dangerous devolution in the coastal enclave would require an occupation “of many months.”

“Every day that passes makes the possibility more evident,” the official told a handful of international journalists in a briefing at the military’s Tel Aviv headquarters. “We can hurt them very hard from the air but not get rid of them.” He spoke on  condition of anonymity under military protocol.

The stark assessment came as Israel bombed 60 targets, most of them in northern Gaza, after warning 100,000 residents to evacuate their homes by 8 a.m. via leaflets, text messages and automated phone calls. The Palestinian death toll reached at least 214 by Wednesday evening, including four children killed in a strike on the seashore.

The lone Israeli casualty, a 37-year-old man killed by a mortar round as he distributed food to soldiers Tuesday night near the Erez crossing, was eulogized by Israel’s president-elect, Reuven Rivlin, at an afternoon funeral.

Late Wednesday, the Israeli military announced that it would halt its bombing of Gaza from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today to provide residents with what it called a “humanitarian window.” The pause was requested by Robert H. Serry, the U.N. special envoy for the Middle East peace process, who said he would ask militant groups in Gaza to “reciprocate” and hold their fire. But the Israeli military said in a statement that it would “respond firmly and decisively” if the militants “exploited” the window to attack Israel.

Scores of rockets from Gaza continued to fly into Israel, several of them intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defense system over Tel Aviv and the southern city of Ashkelon. Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that dominates Gaza, on Wednesday officially rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Israel had initially approved Tuesday. Israeli news outlets reported that Hamas had made its own proposal, offering 10 years of quiet in exchange for the full reopening of Gaza border crossings and release of 50 Palestinians recently rearrested after having been released in a 2011 exchange for a captured Israeli soldier.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was meeting Wednesday in Cairo with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to discuss cease-fire terms. But in Israel, Tuesday’s cautious embrace of a truce had been replaced by increasing chatter about the possibility of an imminent ground operation, as the government moved to call up 8,000 more reservists, adding to 42,000 already mobilized.

Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on Wednesday said a Gaza invasion was “definitely an option. It’s being discussed — I can’t go beyond that.” Asked about the military official’s characterization of the likelihood as “very high,” Mr. Regev said, “That’s a professional opinion of the military.” Then he added, “But you can be assured that opinion was expressed by the military to the political wing.”

Mr. Netanyahu has been under pressure from some members of his Cabinet and party to start a ground operation. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has been at turns partner and rival to the prime minister, on Wednesday reiterated his call for a more substantial operation against Hamas, as did Yuval Steinitz, the minister of strategic affairs, who has been a Netanyahu stalwart and frequent mouthpiece.

“To the best of my understanding, it is not possible to ensure summer vacation, a normal summer for our kids, without a ground operation in Gaza,” Mr. Lieberman said during a visit to Ashkelon, where he and his entourage had to run for cover at one point as sirens warned of incoming rockets, which were intercepted and destroyed by the Iron Dome system in dramatic fashion. “We don’t need to rule Gaza or build settlements in Gaza,” he added. “We need to ensure that all Hamas terrorists run away, are imprisoned or die.”

Mr. Steinitz, for his part, said in a radio interview that it was possible that Israel would begin a ground campaign in the next few days if rocket fire continued, and urged a Gaza takeover for a few weeks to demilitarize it, topple Hamas and pave the way to “something else.”

But the senior military official said it would not be so simple. “We estimate that sitting there and eliminating Hamas terrorism from the Gaza Strip is a matter of many months — it’s not a matter of two or three months, it’s much more than that,” he said. “We have a very good idea of what does it mean to take over Gaza Strip in all aspects — military, civilian, infrastructure, economical — we have a very good idea, and I think it’s one of the issues that the Israeli government should consider very seriously. That’s a huge burden on anybody who would do it. Everything has its own prices.”

The official said the military has a variety of operational plans, including a full re-occupation of Gaza, which Israel seized in the 1967 war and withdrew settlers and soldiers from in 2005, but also “taking specific parts of the strip, taking places with tunnels, places with rockets.”

The current campaign began July 8 amid mounting tension since the June 12 abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers who were hitchhiking home from their yeshivas in the occupied West Bank — a crime that Israel blamed on Hamas — and the July 2 kidnap and killing of a Palestinian 16-year-old in Jerusalem, which authorities say was a revenge attack by Jewish extremists. It is Israel’s third major military operation in Gaza in six years.

By Wednesday, Israel had struck more than 1,800 sites in Gaza, topping the 1,500 targets of its eight-day campaign in November 2012. Among the early targets were a new five-story headquarters of the Interior Ministry that witnesses said was reduced to rubble, and the homes of several Hamas leaders: Mahmoud al-Zahar, a frequent international spokesman; Fathi Hamad, the former interior minister; Ismail al-Ashqar, a member of the defunct parliament; and Bassem Naim, an adviser to the former prime minister, Ismail Haniya.

The Israeli leaflets dropped in northern Gaza and some Gaza City neighborhoods warned, “Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families.”

It was unclear how many Gaza residents were heeding the call; Hamas has urged people to stay put, calling the warnings “psychological warfare.”

In the densely populated and poor neighborhoods of Zeitoun and Shejaya in Gaza City, streets were emptier than usual, but a few children flew kites, and some men sat in the shade. Many people appeared confused, with some seeking shelter in friends’ homes deeper inside the neighborhoods, rather than leaving.

israel - egypt - Middle East - Africa - Mahmoud Abbas - Palestinian territories - North Africa - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Palestinian territories government - Gaza Strip - Benjamin Netanyahu - Tel Aviv - Hamas - Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi - Ismail Haniyeh - Gaza - Avigdor Lieberman


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