Tunnel issue fuels Israeli position

Conflict hinges on sealing off entry for Hamas


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JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders have stressed two points in selling their Gaza Strip ground invasion internationally and at home: that they embraced all cease-fire proposals and that troops are targeting tunnels Palestinian militants use to infiltrate their territory.

Now, with the lopsided casualty count mounting on both sides — more than 550 Gazans, 25 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians — world leaders are demanding an immediate halt to the hostilities. But the operation has uncovered more tunnels than expected, officials said, and there were two more deadly incursions Monday, making many Israelis say they were reluctant to leave a job half-finished.

That has Israeli officials struggling with a more distilled version of the dilemma it has faced in repeated rounds against Hamas, the Islamist movement that dominates Gaza. If it stops now, it faces the prospect of a newly embittered enemy retaining the capacity to attack. But if it stays the course, it is liable to kill many more civilians and face international condemnation.

“Israel must not agree to any proposal for a cease-fire until the tunnels are eliminated,” Gilad Erdan, the right-wing minister of communications, said during a hospital visit to wounded soldiers.

But Tzipi Livni, the centrist justice minister, told reporters that demilitarizing Gaza could be tackled after an agreement, and that “to cease the fire, stop the fire, this is the main goal right now.”

As Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon landed Monday night in Cairo to search for a cease-fire, analysts set low expectations. The Hamas-Israel feud is in many ways trickier and outside the core Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis feel that they withdrew from Gaza only to allow it to become a launching pad for rockets, and Hamas refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. For each, eradicating the other is the goal — not a two-state solution.

This is the third bloody battle between Israel and Hamas in six years, and both previous cease-fire agreements simply restored quiet without touching topics central to the broader conflict, such as the borders of a future Palestinian state or the fate of Jerusalem and refugees.

“With Hamas there, there is no other option but ‘mowing the grass.’ There is no option for a political solution,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University, using an Israeli euphemism for periodic military operations to temporarily roll back Hamas’ arsenal.

“If anybody believes in peace negotiations, two-state solution, Gaza is clear proof that we are far away,” Mr. Inbar added.

Israelis have increasingly floated the idea of an international arrangement modeled on the successful effort to remove chemical weapons from Syria. In this case, it would involve having international observers help to identify and eliminate tunnels and the rest of Gaza’s arsenal.

Ismail Haniya, until recently the Hamas prime minister, said in a speech Monday that fighting would continue until the movement’s demands were met, including the release of prisoners freed in a 2011 exchange for an abducted Israeli soldier and who were recently rearrested — something most experts find it hard to imagine Israel would consider.

“We’ll never go back to the period before the aggression. We’ll never go back to the slow death,” Mr. Haniya said in a televised address. “Gaza will be the graveyard for the invaders, as it always was in history.”

Israel seized Gaza from Egypt in the 1967 war but withdrew all of its settlers and soldiers in 2005 in an evacuation that still roils the society. Right-wingers use the last decade of intermittent fire from Gaza — it continued Monday, with the military’s count of rockets launched since the start of the operation topping 2,000 — as a prime argument against any further withdrawal from occupied territory.

Hamas has ruled there since its bloody rout of the Palestinian Authority in 2007, and Israel bars its citizens from entry, making the tiny coastal enclave crowded with 1.7 million people loom as a frightening enemy in Israeli imagination.

A senior Israeli military official said Sunday that the current operation has already wrought more damage on Hamas than Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009, and the Palestinian death toll is more than triple that of 2012’s Pillar of Defense.

Monday morning, the Abu Jameh family pulled 26 bodies, 19 of them children, from the rubble of their home near the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, the largest toll from a single strike since the battle began July 8. Four people were killed at Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, the main one serving the center of the crowded coastal enclave. An airstrike Monday night destroyed the top five floors of an apartment building called Al-Salam — the Peace — in central Gaza City, an area that had been seen as a safe haven, killing 11.

Eyewitnesses said Israeli forces also fatally shot Mahmoud Hatem al Shawmreh, 29, in one of several clashes Monday night with Palestinian protesters in the West Bank. Seven Israeli soldiers died in combat Monday, making the total over four days 2 1/​2 times the number killed in the three-week Cast Lead. Four were killed inside Israeli territory, along with 10 Gaza gunmen who penetrated the border through tunnels, according to a military statement — at least the fifth such incursion reported by the military since Thursday.

israel - egypt - Middle East - Africa - John Kerry - Mahmoud Abbas - Tzipi Livni - Jerusalem - Palestinian territories - Ban Ki-Moon - North Africa - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Palestinian territories government - West Bank - Gaza Strip - Cairo - Hamas - Ismail Haniyeh - Gaza


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