Pressure rising on Israel to halt war in Gaza

Kerry holds talks with Netanyahu, Palestinian leader

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JERUSALEM — Israel faced new political and economic pressures Wednesday to negotiate a halt to the Gaza war, with its rising toll of death and destruction, as cease-fire talks ground forward and the Israeli tourism industry was upended as major foreign airlines extended their suspension of flights over fears of Palestinian rocket fire.

Secretary of State John Kerry, whose efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement collapsed this year, conducted a whirlwind tour of diplomacy, holding intensive talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after having met in the occupied West Bank with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But for the moment, the prospects for a cease-fire seemed remote.

“We will continue to push for this cease-fire,” Mr. Kerry said in Ramallah, where Mr. Abbas is based. “We have in the last 24 hours made some progress in moving toward that goal.” But several hours later, Mr. Kerry shook hands with a grim-faced Mr. Netanyahu at the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv. Neither of them took questions before or after a two-hour meeting.

Mr. Kerry then flew back to Cairo, where he had spent part of Tuesday in discussions with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, whose cease-fire proposal had provided the framework for discussions on how to arrange one.

While Mr. Kerry has emphasized that his immediate goal is to obtain a cease-fire, he also has said he hopes to lay the groundwork for a “sustainable process going forward” following an end to the fighting. That seemed to be a way to assure the Palestinians in Gaza that the United States was prepared to address some of their long-term economic and political grievances and to acknowledge Mr. Netanyahu’s argument that a way needs to be found to demilitarize Gaza.

But Mr. Kerry’s decision to relegate such issues to a subsequent phase of the negotiations — after a cease-fire is established — also appeared to be an implicit recognition of the difficulties.

Hamas, the main militant group in Gaza, reiterated its rejection of such an approach Wednesday night. Khaled Meshal, the group’s political leader, made his opposition clear in a speech broadcast from his home-in-exile in Doha, Qatar.

“What is needed now is the implementation of the resistance’s demands, then setting the zero-hour for truce,” Mr. Meshal said. “We will not accept any initiative that doesn’t lift the siege on our people and respect their sacrifices and championships.”

Israeli officials have talked increasingly in recent days about what they call the need for a Gaza demilitarization, particularly destruction of its tunnel network, perhaps under international auspices, as part of any accord to halt hostilities.

“We cannot go to a cease-fire without resolving the tunnels,” Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonvich said on Army Radio. “We can have a cease-fire while dealing with the tunnels, but we cannot accept a situation where the tunnels are used by the terrorists as an entrance into Israel.”

The intensified diplomacy came as Israel reported three more Israeli soldiers were killed Wednesday in Gaza, all by explosive devices, bringing the total to 32; a foreign laborer was also felled by a rocket that hit farmland near the city of Ashkelon in the afternoon, the third civilian casualty on the Israeli side.

The Gaza-based Health Ministry put the Palestinian death toll at 695, with 4,520 wounded. The deaths included 166 children, 67 women and 37 older men. Witnesses and health officials said the deaths Wednesday, which totaled at least 71, came from Israeli airstrikes, artillery fire and at least one drone attack on a car in northern Gaza that killed three people.

The Israeli military, in a statement summarizing its version of the day’s fighting, said about 98 rockets had been fired at Israel from Gaza, of which 70 hit Israeli territory and 25 were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system. The statement said Israeli forces had targeted more than 100 sites including concealed rocket launchers, tunnels and what it described as “terror activity posts” within the premises of Al-Wafa hospital. The statement also said 150 Palestinians had been detained.

Despite Israeli government assertions that its airports were safe, which came after a rocket from Gaza had exploded near Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport this week, the unexpected decree Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington temporarily banning U.S. carriers from flying to or from Israel had a profound ripple effect.

The FAA extended the decree Wednesday. Most major European carriers also suspended flights.

While Israel’s national carrier, El Al, added larger planes and more flights to its schedule Wednesday to accommodate passengers stranded by cancellations, El Al already was bracing for tens of millions of dollars in losses from an enormous drop in tourist traffic this summer. Tourism professionals were glum, confronting an unexpected aviation restriction imposed from abroad.

“Who would want to fly into an airport that the top aviation authorities say is dangerous?” Moshe Mizrahi, who works in the tourism industry, was quoted as saying on The Times of Israel website. “When this is over, the airlines and hotels are going to have to do some major work to bring people back here.”

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a prominent supporter of Israel who expressed his opposition to the FAA directive by flying to Israel on El Al, said Wednesday that he hoped that FAA officials would reverse their decision.

“They are well-meaning. It’s a great organization,” he said in a televised interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “They make airlines and airports safe in America, but not as safe as Ben-Gurion and El-Al are. And the fact that one rocket falls far away from this airport, a mile away, doesn’t mean you should shut down air traffic into a country and paralyze the country.”

Asked about assertions by Hamas that it had achieved a “great victory” in reducing air traffic and isolating Israel because of the FAA’s decision, Mr. Bloomberg said: “I probably don’t agree with very many things Hamas says, but that is clearly true.”

Calcalist, an Israeli business newspaper, estimated the hit to the tourism industry so far stood at $200 million.

With thousands of Israelis waiting to leave on vacation or stranded abroad because of canceled flights, the price of El Al tickets soared: A ticket to New York available for $1,450 Tuesday was $2,220 Wednesday, according to Issta Lines, a travel company. Israeli news reports indicated that only seven foreign carriers continued their flights Wednesday.

The fighting has exerted no significant effect yet on Israel’s vibrant stock market,, and its currency, the shekel, has been stable throughout the latest upsurge in the conflict. But Israelis have begun to feel economic pain in other ways. With Israel’s mobilization of 59,000 reservists for possible duty in Gaza, many businesses are missing employees, and many shops in the southern area near Gaza have been closed.

Adding further pressure on the combatants to halt the fighting, the United Nations’ top human rights official, Navi Pillay, said Wednesday that there was a “strong possibility” that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes with indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The council, meeting in Geneva, voted to conduct an inquiry.

Ms. Pillay cited Israeli airstrikes on civilian homes in Gaza and the shelling of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital two days earlier, which killed four people, as examples of actions that suggest “a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated in a manner that could amount to war crimes.”

She also condemned Hamas and other militant groups for attacks on Israeli civilians. And she said it was unacceptable to place military assets in densely populated areas or to launch attacks from them.

The U.N. said Tuesday that 117,000 displaced people in Gaza were sheltering in 80 of its schools, and that 1.2 million residents in Gaza had “no or very limited access to water or sanitation services.”

Gaza City was quieter than usual Wednesday morning, but Israeli navy gunboats fired at the coastline all day. There were also shootings and explosions between Jabaliya, a refugee camp in the north of the strip, and Khan Younis, a city in the south. A flood of families headed toward Khan Younis from the nearby villages of Abasan al-Kabera, Abasan al-Asghira and Bani Suheila, and a local hospital was receiving many wounded people from those places.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, the Israeli military spokesman, confirmed that most fighting remained in areas on the Gaza Strip periphery and in the eastern Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya, where 13 soldiers and at least 60 Palestinians were killed Sunday and fierce combat has continued since. He said 30 militants had been killed in the past 24 hours, for a total of 210 — Palestinians put the number of fighters much lower — and that 28 underground tunnels with 68 entry points had been “exposed,” and six of the tunnels “demolished.”

united nations - israel - United States - North America - United States government - Middle East - New York City - New York - John Kerry - Michael Bloomberg - Mahmoud Abbas - Jerusalem - Palestinian territories - Federal Aviation Administration - U.S. Department of Transportation - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Palestinian territories government - Gaza Strip - Navi Pillay - Benjamin Netanyahu - Tel Aviv - Hamas - Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi - Gaza - Khaled Meshal - Wolf Blitzer


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