Israel intensifies Gaza strikes after Hamas rejects ceasefire bid
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Israel warned 100,000 Gazans to leave their homes on Wednesday ahead of an intensified air campaign after Hamas defied calls for a ceasefire, firing dozens of rockets into Israel overnight and claiming the first Israeli victim in the conflict.
Flyers were dropped over the Zeitun neighbourhood southeast of Gaza City, warning Gazans to leave the area. Residents of Zeitun and other districts also reported receiving phone and text messages urging them to evacuate by 5 a.m. GMT.
Renewed strikes killed five Gazans overnight, raising the Palestinian death toll in eight days of violence to 197, medics said.
Tensions have continued to escalate in the more than week-old conflict as the armed wing of Hamas defied Arab and Western calls for a truce on Tuesday and Israel threatened to step up an offensive that could include a ground invasion of the densely populated enclave of 1.8 million.
Egypt – Gaza’s neighbour and whose military-backed government has been at odds with the Islamist Hamas – announced a blueprint for a mutual “de-escalation” which was to have begun at 9am local time (6am GMT), with hostilities to cease within 12 hours.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, rejected the ceasefire deal, namely because the proposal only addressed its key demands in general terms. The al-Qassam Brigades further warned that battle with Israel would “increase in ferocity and intensity”.
But Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas political official who was in Cairo, said Hamas had made no final decision on Cairo’s proposal and would continue to seek a deal that would ease the Egyptian and Israeli border restrictions throttling Gaza’s economy.
Continued rocket fire
The Israeli military said that since the ceasefire deal was theoretically to have gone into effect, Hamas had fired 123 rockets at Israel, one killing a civilian – the first Israeli fatality in the fighting.
A Palestinian civilian was killed in an airstrike in Khan Younis.
Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepted 20 of the Hamas projectiles, including two over the Tel Aviv area, and the rest caused no damage or casualties.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the attack against Israel’s commercial capital, which has been a frequent target since the war began, as well as for the rocket that killed the Israeli man close to the border.
Israeli 'expands and intensifies' campaign
Six hours hours after the truce was to have begun, and citing the persistent rocket attacks, Israel resumed attacks in Gaza. The military said it targeted at least 20 of Hamas’s hidden rocket launchers, tunnels and weapons storage facilities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in broadcast remarks late on Tuesday that Israel had no choice but to “expand and intensify” its campaign on Hamas, though he did not specifically mention the possibility of a ground incursion.
Reporting from the Gaza Strip, FRANCE 24 correspondent Gallagher Fenwick said Netanyahu’s words left residents there wondering what "intensification" would mean for them.
“They fear it may mean more deaths, and more destruction,” said Fenwick. “They truly feel like they’re running out of options, and may be faced with an imminent storm.”
The Iron Dome has shot down most projectiles liable to hit Israeli towns and cities, but the rocket salvoes have made the rush to shelters part of daily life for hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
The surge in hostilities over the past week was prompted by the murder last month of three Jewish seminary students in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the revenge killing on July 2 of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem. Israel said on Monday that three Jews in police custody had confessed to killing the Palestinian.
Peace proposal fails
Under the proposal announced by Egypt’s foreign ministry, high-level delegations from Israel and the Palestinian factions would hold separate talks in Cairo within 48 hours to consolidate the ceasefire with “confidence-building measures”.
Earlier, Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said that its demands must be met before it lays down its weapons. Other Palestinian militant groups – Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine – also said they had not yet agreed to the Egyptian offer.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who reached an agreement with Hamas in April that led to the formation of a unity government last month, called for acceptance of the proposal, the official Palestinian news agency WAFA said.
Abbas was due in Cairo on Wednesday for talks with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Palestinian leader’s spokesman said.
Hamas leaders have said any deal must include an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza and a recommitment to a truce reached in an eight-day war there in 2012.
Hamas has said it also wants the release of hundreds of its activists arrested in the West Bank while Israel searched for the three missing teenagers.
The proposed truce made no mention of the detainees.
Adnan Abu Amer, a political analyst in Gaza, said it appeared that Egypt had deliberately ensured that their initiative would fall short of Hamas’s demands, in an attempt to make the movement look rejectionist.
“Egypt stood by Israel’s side, as if it was trying to punish Hamas and give Israel some time to pursue its military campaign,” he said.
Response to rockets and ceasefire
Speaking in Vienna, US Secretary of State John Kerry supported Israel: “I cannot condemn strongly enough the actions of Hamas in so brazenly firing rockets, in multiple numbers, in the face of a goodwill effort (to secure) a ceasefire.”
Netanyahu, whose security cabinet voted 6-2 earlier on Tuesday to accept the truce, had cautioned that Israel would respond strongly if rockets continued to fly.
He said he expected the “full support from the responsible members of the international community” for any intensification of Israeli attacks in response to Hamas spurning a truce.
The Arab League at a meeting on Monday also welcomed the ceasefire plan.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)