In Gaza clash, Hamas makes demands; Netanyahu holds fast

New York Times News Service /

CAIRO — Emboldened by the rising power of Islamists around the region, the Palestinian militant group Hamas demanded new Israeli concessions to its security and autonomy before it halts its rocket attacks on Israel, even as the conflict took an increasing toll on Sunday.

After five days of punishing Israeli airstrikes on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and no letup in the rocket fire in return, representatives of Israel and Hamas met separately with Egyptian officials in Cairo on Sunday for indirect talks about a truce.

The talks came as an Israeli bomb struck a house in Gaza on Sunday afternoon, killing 11 people, in the deadliest single strike since the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalated Wednesday. The strike, along with several others that killed civilians across the Gaza Strip, signaled that Israel was broadening its range of targets on the fifth day of the campaign.

By the end of the day, Gaza health officials reported that 70 Palestinians had been killed in airstrikes since Wednesday, including 20 children, and that 600 had been wounded. Three Israelis have been killed and at least 79 wounded by unrelenting rocket fire out of Gaza into southern Israel and as far north as Tel Aviv.

Hamas, badly outgunned on the battlefield, appeared to be trying to exploit its increased political clout with its ideological allies in Egypt’s new Islamist-led government. The group’s leaders, rejecting Israel’s call for an immediate end to the rocket attacks, have instead laid down sweeping demands that would put Hamas in a stronger position than when the conflict began: an end to Israel’s 5-year-old embargo of the Gaza Strip, a pledge by Israel not to attack again and multinational guarantees that Israel would abide by its commitments.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel stuck to his demand that all rocket fire cease before the air campaign lets up, and Israeli tanks and troops remained lined up outside Gaza on Sunday. Tens of thousands of reserve troops had been called up. “The army is prepared to significantly expand the operation,” Netanyahu said at the start of a Cabinet meeting.

Reda Fahmy, a member of Egypt’s upper house of Parliament and of the nation’s dominant Islamist party, who is following the talks, said Hamas’ position was just as unequivocal.

“Hamas has one clear and specific demand: for the siege to be completely lifted from Gaza,” he said. “It’s not reasonable that every now and then Israel decides to level Gaza to the ground, and then we decide to sit down and talk about it after it is done. On the Israeli part, they want to stop the missiles from one side. How is that?”

Israel hails Iron Dome rocket defense

JERUSALEM — An abiding image of the former Israel defense minister Amir Peretz was a photograph of him peering at a military drill — with the black lens caps still on his binoculars. Peretz resigned months after the 2006 war in Lebanon, which was widely regarded as a failure.

Yet on Sunday, as rockets fired by Gaza militants streaked toward Tel Aviv, Ashdod and other Israeli cities, Peretz, a resident of the rocket-battered border town of Sderot, was being hailed as a defense visionary for having had the foresight while in office to face down myriad skeptics and push for the development of Iron Dome, Israel’s unique anti-rocket interceptor system.

The naysayers now are few. In the five days since Israel began its fierce assault on the militant infrastructure in Hamas-run Gaza, after years of rocket fire against southern Israel, Iron Dome has successfully intercepted more than 300 rockets fired at densely populated areas, with a success rate of 80 to 90 percent, top officials said. Developed with significant U.S. funding and undergoing its ultimate battle test, the Iron Dome system has saved many lives, protected property and proved to be a strategic game changer, experts said.

Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured a newly deployed mobile unit near Tel Aviv on Sunday and described Iron Dome as “probably the most technologically impressive achievement in recent years in Israel.” He called its performance “almost perfect.”

— New York Times News Service