Hamas left isolated by its refusal to accept a truce as death toll rises and UN chief heads for the region to help broker peace
The people of Gaza are facing the bloody consequences of Israel’s dramatic escalation of the 10-day conflict and Hamas’s intransigence in the face of mounting calls for a ceasefire. As Israel pressed ahead with a ground offensive in Gaza on Saturday morning, the death toll of Palestinians rose above 300, many of them children.
An early morning air strike outside a mosque in the southern city of Khan Yunis killed seven people on Saturday, including a woman, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.
Other raids shortly afterwards killed another four, bringing the total death toll to 307 Palestinians and two Israelis, AFP reported.
With intense fighting forcing tens of thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned that his military were ready for a “significant expansion” of the ground operation he has ordered to destroy Hamas tunnels dug under the border with Israel.
As diplomatic efforts to end the conflict continued in Cairo and at the UN, Hamas was looking increasingly isolated in its refusal to negotiate a truce without concessions in advance. It wants prisoners released and the easing of the blockade on Gaza by both Israel and Egypt.
“[Thursday night’s] operation came after Israel agreed to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal and to the UN initiative for a humanitarian truce,” Netanyahu told his security cabinet. “In both cases, Hamas continued firing. We chose to commence this operation after we had exhausted the other possibilities.
The primary aim, he explained, was the destruction of tunnels used by Palestinian militants to launch attacks in Israel. There was “no guarantee of 100% success”, he said.
The Israeli Defence Forces said its troops had located 13 tunnels in Gaza on Friday, tweeting pictures of shafts and openings. .
Israeli hardliners have called for the military campaign to extend its aims to crushing Hamas and retaking control of Gaza.
At Jordan’s request, the UN security council held an emergency meeting on Friday. Afterwards an official announced that the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, would be leaving on Saturday for the Middle East to help mediate the conflict.
Ban on Thursday chastised Israel for ignoring calls for restraint: “I regret that despite my repeated urgings, and those of many regional and world leaders together, an already dangerous conflict has now escalated even further.”
In Gaza, medical staff were overwhelmed by the numbers of injured rushed to hospital in the hours following the escalation of Israel’s military campaign. Electricity was cut to most of the population as power lines were brought down. The UN said the number of people seeking sanctuary from the fighting in 34 shelters had almost doubled to 40,000 since the start of the ground invasion.
But with the Palestinian death toll rising over 300, it is the Hamas leadership that has come under increasing pressure from multiple international sources to accept an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
“The objective is to convince all the Palestinian factions to accept the ceasefire,” one western diplomat told the Guardian.
French and Italian foreign ministers flew to Cairo, where negotiations have centred, to back Egypt’s call for a prompt de-escalation in the conflict. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival, had argued until the small hours of Friday with representatives of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Gaza-based group, in a failed attempt to get them to agree to a truce.
On Friday Abbas flew to Turkey to ask the prime minister, Recep Erdogan – who has better relations with Hamas – to persuade the group to accept a ceasefire.
“I hope there will be an agreement – maybe Turkey and Qatar [another Hamas ally] will have something,” said Gamal Shobky, Abbas’s envoy in Cairo. “We need this quickly to stop Palestinian blood.”
Egypt has promised that the leaders of all concerned parties can come immediately to Cairo to start formal talks about Gaza – but only once a ceasefire is agreed.
The Arab League has backed Egypt’s call for a quick ceasefire for several days, while Egypt’s foreign minister issued an unusually harsh criticism of Hamas’s stance, even as Israeli troops crossed the border into Gaza.
Sameh Shoukry told Egypt’s state-run news agency: “If Hamas had accepted the Egyptian proposal, it could save the lives of at least 40 Palestinians” – a statement that reveals in stark terms how entrenched Egypt’s opposition to Hamas has become