Israel-Gaza conflict: President Obama presses Netanyahu to call ‘immediate and unconditional’ Gaza ceasefire

Israeli military claims it has completed most of the work of locating and destroying Hamas tunnels

Jerusalem

Washington ratcheted up the pressure on Israel on Sunday night to end the bloodshed in Gaza after the US President, Barack Obama, stressed to Benjamin Netanyahu the need for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire.

Stopping short of calling for an end to the blockade of Gaza, Mr Obama told the Israeli Prime Minister in a telephone call that any peace deal “must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarisation of Gaza”.

It came as Israel and Hamas wrestled over whether to extend a humanitarian lull in their 20-day old war as Israel approached a fateful decision on what to do when it completes the stated initial goal of its ground offensive: locating and destroying Hamas cross border tunnels.

Army chief of staff Major-General Benny Gantz told reporters on Sunday that the military had completed most of the work of locating and destroying Hamas tunnels, a statement that raises the question of where Israel will take the war in a few days when that is accomplished. Possibilities include finding new military goals, declaring victory and unilaterally withdrawing troops from Gaza, or escalating to a campaign to militarily destroy Hamas.

There is also a possibility of a ceasefire, but the Israeli moment of truth approaches at a time when US-brokered efforts for a comprehensive ceasefire appear to be foundering, with Israel and Hamas adhering to mutually exclusive conditions.

With the war goals becoming fuzzier, Amos Yadlin, head of the country's most influential think-tank, the Institute for National Strategic Studies, advocated the, “weakening and even destruction” of the Islamist group that rules the coastal enclave. At the start of the war, that position was heard only on the far right fringes and its advocacy by Mr Yadlin, a former intelligence chief, and some ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party suggests it is becoming more mainstream.

 

The security cabinet was convened on Sunday night to discuss the course of the war after it rejected on Friday US Secretary of State John Kerry's proposals for a ceasefire for not taking into account Israeli demands such as completing the anti-tunnel effort and stripping Hamas of its rocket arsenal.

Even agreeing on a brief humanitarian lull was proving tortuous. Israeli leaders endorsed on Saturday a 24 hour extension of the humanitarian pause, proposed by the UN, that would have brought it forward to midnight on Sunday. The initial idea of the lull was to enable Gazans to stock up on supplies and bury their dead. Israeli leaders also said they hoped that when Gazans emerged from where they were taking cover and saw the extent of the devastation in the Strip, they would pressure Hamas to agree to a ceasefire.

But Hamas rejected the extension early on Sunday, firing mortars into Israel and saying that Israeli troops would have to be pulled out of Gaza for a pause to take effect. However, Hamas later changed its position and announced it was accepting a lull as of 2pm because of today's Al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the sacred fasting month of Ramadan. Mr Netanyahu dismissed the Hamas move, telling CNN that the Islamist group had kept firing past the deadline and ''doesn't even accept its own ceasefire.'' Israel, he said, would ''take whatever action is necessary to protect its people.''

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It was unclear whether the two sides were heading towards a de facto lull, with reports from Gaza in the afternoon saying Israeli shelling had subsided. An army official told Israel's Ynet news agency that there was an order to hold fire as of 2pm but a diplomatic official said Israel had not accepted a ceasefire. In the event, at around 4pm an Israeli woman was lightly wounded by shrapnel from a mortar fired at southern Israel and sirens warned of incoming fire in the southern city of Beersheba.

The outlook for a ceasefire was bleak. In addition to completing the tunnel operations, Israel wants Hamas “demilitarised” and does not want it to be able to claim a victory in the form of its demands being met. Hamas, meanwhile, is adhering to its demands that there can be no ceasefire without guarantees that Israel and Egypt will lift the border strictures crippling the Strip's economy and that Israel will release Hamas leaders it recently rearrested in the West Bank. Mr Netanyahu told NBC that the unconditional ceasefire proposal of Egypt, which was rejected by Hamas, “is the only game in town.”

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He added that Israel is demanding the “demilitarization” of Gaza, a term understood to mean the stripping from Hamas of its rockets and heavy weapons. He said that any future economic assistance should be linked to this demilitarisation and alleged that international funds to build kindergartens were diverted by Hamas to making tunnels to be used to blow up Israeli kindergartens

But how to get Hamas to agree to disarm? Mr Yadlin, the think-tank director, believes the answer is “much more military pressure on the Hamas military wing. We have destroyed some battalions but we haven't destroyed the core of the military wing. Hamas has been beaten but not enough. The only way to achieve a durable ceasefire is by weakening or even destroying Hamas.”

Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, took issue with Mr Yadlin’s prescription. “Hamas is not just a military chain of command, it is an idea, a social network, welfare institutions and a political party so it is impossible to destroy it physically and their idea of liberation will remain in the minds of people.”

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