- diplomacy - Egypt - GAZA ASSAULT - Middle East - Nicolas Sarkozy
Israeli tanks and troops pushed deep into the Gaza Strip in a punishing ground offensive Monday. Israeli leaders rebuffed a concerted European diplomatic effort to broker an immediate ceasefire in the region.
On the tenth day of its Gaza offensive, Israeli ground forces encircled Gaza City while air strikes continued to pound Hamas targets. Palestinian medical sources say more than 500 people, including women and children, have been killed and about 2,500 have been wounded since the offensive began.
Hamas militants have continued firing rockets into Israeli territory — the original cause of the current offensive — killing four Israelis, including an Israeli soldier.
The offensive continued even as senior European envoys criss-crossed the region in a bid to open talks on an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, during a visit to the region Monday. An European Union delegation headed by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the European bloc's rotating presidency, also met with Mubarak in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh.
The EU delegation, which includes foreign policy chief Javier Solana and external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, met Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, in Jerusalem and are due to travel to the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority controls the West Bank, but has no power over the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem after her meeting with visiting European envoys, Livni rejected calls for a truce and for the reopening of border crossings into the densely populated coastal enclave.
"We are fighting with terror, and we are not reaching an agreement with terror," said Livni.
She also suggested that the equation in the region had changed following Israel’s latest offensive.
"Before the military operation, Hamas targets Israelis whenever it likes and Israel shows restraint," she said. "This is no longer going to be the equation. When Israel is targeted, Israel is going to retaliate."
For its part, Hamas has also rejected calls to stop firing rockets into Gaza and has maintained that any ceasefire agreement should include the issue of lifting the blockade of the besieged Strip.
"Any initiative not based on ending the aggression, opening the border crossings and an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has no chance of succeeding," exiled Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk told Reuters in an interview in Damascus.
But the Islamist movement has said it was sending a delegation to Egypt for talks on the situation in Gaza.
During his visit to the region, Sarkozy is expected to join his EU colleagues for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Monday evening. Sarkozy will travel to Syria Tuesday.
"Syria is a vital partner when it comes to passing messages to Hamas, with whom there is no official contact," said FRANCE 24’s David Crossan from Egypt.
He stressed, however, that Livni left little hope of success for European mediation efforts. “This is a very different situation to the one that pertained in the Caucasus last year,” Crossan said in reference to the ceasefire Sarkozy obtained from Russia and Georgia last August.
"The situation is catastrophic"
In the Gaza Strip, Israeli tanks and troops kept pressing forward, cutting off Gaza City from the rest of the territory. Palestinian medical sources said that at least 50 people died as a result of Monday’s fighting, most of them civilians.
"The situation is catastrophic. The Israelis are striking civilian areas from air, ground and sea," Tarek Abdel Chafi, a French-Palestinian teacher, told FRANCE 24 from Gaza. "There is no more electricity, no more water, no more gas. In hospitals, medicals operations are done in the corridors."
Abdel Chafi was among a group of foreign passport holders whom the Red Cross tried to evacuate on Monday. The operation was cancelled due to heavy shelling between Gaza and the Eretz border crossing in northern Gaza.
Despite the Israeli invasion, Hamas militants have fired around 32 rockets towards Israel since Sunday evening, according to Israel’s police. Two of those landed on the Israeli town of Sderot.
"One of them landed on the market," said FRANCE 24 reporter Sophie Claudet from the terror-stricken town. "Fortunately it was not market day and nobody was hurt."
"According to an NGO that provides psychological support to children, more than half of the children suffer from post-traumatic stress. They cannot sleep at night and wet their beds,” she added.
Reporting from the Gaza-Israel border near the Israeli town of Sderot, FRANCE 24’s Lucas Menget said the rockets were launched from the area where most Israeli troops have entered the Gaza Strip.
"If Hamas fighters are able to launch rockets from the north, it means that they still have military capacities," said Menget. "That’s why the Israeli army continues to combat and look for the fighters house by house."
Bush understands "Israel's desire to protect itself"
The EU’s diplomatic efforts come as US President George W. Bush said he understood Israel's wish to defend itself.
Speaking to reporters in Washington Monday, Bush said any Gaza ceasefire must ensure Hamas militants can no longer fire rockets on Israeli towns. "I understand Israel's desire to protect itself and that the situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas," Bush said.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 Monday, Elie Karmon, a strategic specialist for the Tel Aviv Institute of Counter Terrorism, said, "Israel wants two things: no more rocket attacks on Israel, and no permission for Hamas to re-arm."
He noted that "decisive military developments" could take place on the ground in the next two weeks — before the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president on January 20.
Referring to the United States, Karmon said: "The fact that in two weeks they will have a new president is a political cloak that will influence the decisions of the Israeli leadership."
Obama's silence on the situation in Gaza has angered Palestinian leaders. At a press conference at the United Nations headquarters in New York, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki regretted Obama’s failure to issue a statement on the situation.
Said Malki: "Disappointingly, President-elect Obama refused to comment on the situation in Gaza despite the fact that he commented on the bombing in Mumbai in India [last year]. We expect him to be responsible towards the situation in Gaza and to issue a strong statement as soon as possible."