Israeli air strikes killed 11 Palestinians in Gaza, including the wife and infant son of Hamas military leader Mohammed Deif, in what the group said on Wednesday was an attempt to assassinate him after an Egypt-brokered ceasefire collapsed on Tuesday.
Accusing Israel of opening a “gateway to hell”, Hamas fired rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The attacks caused no casualties but demonstrated that the Islamist movement could still bring the Gaza war to Israel’s heartland despite heavy Israeli bombardments in the five-week-old conflict.
Israel’s military said it had carried out 80 air strikes on the Gaza Strip, “targeting terror sites”, since hostilities resumed on Tuesday, and that Palestinians had launched more than 130 rockets mainly at southern Israel, with some intercepted by the Israeli anti-missile Iron Dome system. No casualties were reported on the Israeli side.
The violence shattered a 10-day period of calm, the longest break from fighting since Israel launched its Gaza offensive on July 8 with the declared aim of ending Palestinian rocket fire into its territory.
French President Francois Hollande called on Israel and Palestine on Wednesday to resume truce talks after a Gaza ceasefire collapsed, as did Egypt, while Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was in Doha to meet the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to discuss the conflict and more aid for Palestinians, according to diplomatic sources.
The Palestinian health ministry says 2 029 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the Gaza Strip. Israel says it has killed hundreds of Palestinian militants in fighting that the United Nations says has displaced about 425 000 people in the territory of 1.8-million.
In Israel, 64 soldiers and three civilians have been killed in the most deadly and destructive war Hamas and Israel have fought since Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, before Hamas seized the territory in 2007.
Hamas said an Israeli bombing of a house in Gaza City late on Tuesday was an attempt to assassinate Deif, widely believed to be masterminding the Islamist group’s military campaign from underground bunkers.
There was no official confirmation from Israel, which has targeted Deif in air strikes at least four times since the mid-1990s, holding him responsible for the deaths of dozens of its citizens in suicide bombings.
“I am convinced that if there was intelligence that Mohammed Deif was not inside the home, then we would not have bombed it,” Yaakov Perry, Israel’s science minister and former security chief, told Army Radio. A Hamas official said Deif does not use the house.
Three bodies were pulled from the rubble. Hospital officials identified them as Deif’s wife, his seven-month-old son and a 20-year-old man.
Chanting “Qassam, bomb Tel Aviv!”, thousands of Palestinians attended the funeral of Deif’s wife and son in Jabalya refugee camp on Wednesday. The woman’s mother told reporters she wished she had “another 100 daughters” to offer Deif in marriage.
An Israeli cabinet minister on Wednesday justified the air strike that killed Deif’s wife and child by saying that the Hamas leader was a legitimate target.
“Mohamed Deif deserves to die just like [Osama] bin Laden. He is an arch murderer and as long as we have an opportunity we will try to kill him,” Interior Minister Gideon Saar told Army Radio.
He said he could not confirm if the head of Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, had been killed during the air strike.
Hamas used its Al-Aqsa television channel to urge Palestinians to attend the funerals of Deif’s wife and son.
Appointed head of Hamas’s armed wing in 2002, after his predecessor Salah Shehade was assassinated, Deif has already escaped five previous assassination attempts by Israel.
The Israelis see him as “the brains” behind the campaign of suicide bombings that targeted buses and public places in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem until 2006 and consider him “personally responsible for the deaths of dozens of civilians”.
Accusing Hamas of breaking the truce with rocket fire eight hours before it was to have expired, Israel recalled its negotiators from truce talks in Cairo on Tuesday, leaving the fate of the Egyptian-brokered efforts hanging in the balance.
Palestinian negotiators walked out of the talks later, blaming Israel for their failure. “Israel thwarted the contacts that could have brought peace,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Azzam al-Ahmed.
Rejecting the charge, Mark Regev, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Gaza rocket fire “made continuation of talks impossible”.
“The Cairo process was built on a total and complete cessation of all hostilities and so when rockets were fired from Gaza, not only was it a clear violation of the ceasefire but it also destroyed the premise upon which the talks were based,” said Regev.
Israel instructed its civilians to open bomb shelters as far as 80km from Gaza, or beyond the Tel Aviv area, and the military called up 2 000 reservists.
Egypt called on Israelis and Palestinians on Wednesday to resume negotiations, expressing its “profound regret at the breach of the ceasefire in Gaza”.
Egypt “is continuing contacts with both the Palestinian and Israeli sides to exhort them to respect the ceasefire once more, and carry on negotiations in a positive way in order to reach an agreement guaranteeing a permanent ceasefire,” said the foreign ministry.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the breach of the ceasefire, saying he was “gravely disappointed by the return to hostilities” and urging the sides not to allow matters to escalate.
Hollande said Gaza should be demilitarised and the blockade lifted. “We are at a critical point. France supports the Egyptian mediation,” Hollande told French daily newspaper Le Monde. “Gaza can no longer remain like it is. The objective must be a demilitarisation and a lifting of the blockade.”
Accusing Hamas of breaking the truce with rocket fire eight hours before it was to have expired, Israel recalled its negotiators from truce talks in Cairo on Tuesday. Palestinian negotiators walked out of the talks later, blaming Israel for their failure.
“Demilitarisation can only be done under the auspices of the Palestinian National Authority. France with Europe can be useful in lifting the blockade at the Rafah crossing. Gaza must neither be an open prison or a military base,” Hollande said.
Hollande said if negotiations failed then the international community would have to take the lead to find a solution.
“We must do everything to ensure negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority resume to find a solution to the conflict. We know the parameters, the only solution is two states living side by side,” he said.
Abbas’s visit to Qatar, a close ally of Hamas, will be his second since the hostilities in Gaza began on July 8.
“The president will be in Doha to meet with the emir and talks will be on how to lift the siege of Gaza, the political scene that will follow that and then the urgent needs of the Palestinian people given the catastrophic losses,” said the Palestinian ambassador in Doha, Monir Ghannam.
Qatar, which has been acting as a communication channel between the West and Hamas, has donated more than $500-million in humanitarian aid to Palestinians in addition to grants of $1 000 for every Palestinian who has lost their home.
Egyptian mediators have been struggling to end the Gaza conflict and seal a deal that would open the way for reconstruction aid to flow into the territory of 1.8-million people, where thousands of homes have been destroyed.
The Palestinians want Egypt and Israel to lift their blockades of the economically crippled Gaza Strip that predated the Israeli offensive.
Israel, like Egypt, views Hamas as a security threat and wants guarantees that any removal of border restrictions will not result in militant groups obtaining weapons.
A senior Palestinian official in Gaza said sticking points to an agreement have been Hamas’s demands to build a seaport and an airport, which Israel wants to discuss only at a later stage.
Israel has called for the disarming of militant groups in the enclave. Hamas has said that laying down its weapons is not an option, saying it will pursue its armed struggle until Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands ends.
Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in 1967. It unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The Palestinians want Gaza and the West Bank for an independent state with its capital in East Jerusalem. – Reuters, AFP