Death Tolls Mount as Gaza braces for invasion


White House calls for diplomacy after Israeli air strikes destroy Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s headquarters

GAZA – was on Saturday braced for a ground invasion by Israeli forces following intensified bombing overnight that included the flattening of the headquarters of the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

As the Israeli military began the emergency call-up of up to 75,000 reservists, leaders from Turkey, Egypt and Qatar met in Cairo to discuss ways of ending the escalating violence. Israel said that it had struck 200 targets overnight in the Gaza Strip, bringing the death toll to 39, with hundreds more wounded.

The US urged diplomacy and “de-escalation”, but said Israel had the right to self-defence. It wanted the “same thing as the Israelis want” in ending rocket attacks, the White House said in a statement. In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens sounded for the third day running, with residents reporting the sound of an explosion. Hamas said it had fired a Fajr-5 rocket from its arsenal of long-range missiles. Three Israelis have been killed since the conflict began on Wednesday.

A small mountain of rubble, twisted metal and broken glass was all that remained of Haniyeh’s headquarters. Several Palestinian flags fluttered on poles poking out from the debris. Bombing from Israeli aircraft and warships continued to pummel the Gaza Strip throughout Saturday.

Israel’s hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, warned of a “crushing response” still to come to prevent missile fire by Hamas and other militant groups, but denied that Israel had launched an all-out war.

“The only way we can achieve peace and security is to create real deterrence via a crushing response that will make sure they don’t try to test us again,” he said. “This isn’t an all-out war, but an operation with defined goals.” If a ground invasion was authorised, Israel would have to “see it through,” he said. “This wasn’t done during Operation Cast Lead [the 22-day war four years ago], which is why we failed to achieve our goal.”

On a visit to Gaza, the Tunisian foreign minister, Rafik Abdesslem, denounced the Israeli attacks as unacceptable and against international law. “Israel should understand that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river,” he said. “It should realise it no longer has a free hand. It does not have total immunity and is not above international law… What Israel is doing is not legitimate and is not acceptable at all.”

He was expected to later join a meeting in Cairo of regional leaders, along with Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal and Ramdan Shallah, the Islamic Jihad secretary-general, to discuss ways of trying to contain the crisis. Others at the gathering included Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Qatari emir.

The meeting came as Arab League foreign ministers also met to draw up a draft statement calling for a negotiated ceasefire.

The league was also expected to authorise its general secretary, Nabil El-Araby, to lead a delegation into Gaza following visits in recent days.

Erdogan has been a highly outspoken critic of Israel, while Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza in October, breaking the isolation of the Hamas government.

Arab League diplomats briefed on Saturday evening that its statement would be calling for an immediate ceasefire. However, Hamas officials in Gaza said that any truce would be dependent on Israel agreeing to lift its long-term blockade of the territory and agree to end its policy of assassinations of Hamas leaders, conditions that Israel is unlikely to accept.

The disclosure of the terms of the talks began to emerge as Hamas fired a Fajr-5 missile at the outskirts of Tel Aviv, which is likely to reinforce Israel’s willingness to push ahead with the campaign after a day of continuing rocket fire out of Gaza and Israeli air strikes.

According to military sources, Egyptian intelligence officials met Hamas officials in Gaza for the second day running. The talks coincided with recent high-profile delegations that have entered Gaza to show solidarity with Palestinians living there.

Tunisian foreign minister Rafik Abdesslem visited Gaza a day after Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil crossed the border into the Palestinian enclave, condemning Israeli actions and pledging to work for a truce. Meshaal also held talks on Saturday with Egyptian security officials on prospects for a truce.

Egypt brokered an informal truce in October, which has since collapsed. It now says it is seeking a new deal.

An Arab diplomatic source, who declined to be named, told Reuters the Arab League draft to be discussed by the ministers expressed the Cairo-based league’s support for Egypt’s efforts to achieve a “long-term truce” between Israel and Palestinian factions.

The draft also calls for the UN security council to take the necessary steps to halt the violence and “protect the Palestinian people”.

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