Planned cease-fire fails as Egypt's prime minister visits Gaza

Friday, November 16, 2012 - 7:23am

Explosions rumbled through Gaza all night into Friday, as Palestinian health officials reported an additional death in the conflict with Israel, bringing the total toll to 20.

The fighting has left 235 wounded, Palestinian officials said. Israeli officials reported no new deaths Friday, saying a total of three have died from rocket fire since fighting broke out.

Gazans got no respite from the ongoing attacks as Egypt's prime minister arrived for a visit. Israel planned a cease-fire for Friday to accommodate him, according to a senior official from the Israeli prime minister's offer. But the move was contingent on Gazans also holding their fire. The militant group al-Qassam, Hamas' military arm, rejected the idea.

Israeli defense spokesman Capt. Barak Raz complained via Twitter that during Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil's visit, 50 rockets flew out of Gaza toward Israel.

Raz reported an explosion in Tel Aviv that shook his apartment.

Hamas' al-Aqsa TV has reported that Israel was continuing operations during Kandil's visit, which was expected to last three hours.

But Israeli spokeswoman Avital Leibovich contradicted al-Aqsa's claim, posting to Twitter that the military paused operations for at least two hours.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed striking "approximately 150" targets from darkness into dawn Friday.

The military began operation Pillar of Defense on Wednesday in response to a high number of rockets fired at Israel over the past year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said.

"This year alone, they (Hamas) fired over 1,000 rockets and missiles at Israel, including close to 200 rockets in the last 24 hours," he said in a statement Thursday.

Reactions from the Western powers largely blame Hamas for starting the armed altercation but call on Israel to be proportionate in its response.

Shortly after sunup Friday, two detonations just 500 to 600 yards away from CNN's team in Gaza City sent it running for cover inside its hotel.

Recurring bombardments provided for a sleepless night of hearing and feeling explosions of ordnance coming into Gaza from Israel and watching some rockets leaving Gaza for Israel.

Falling bombs made doors clatter and sometimes even one's bones. Clouds of smoke sprouted into the sky paralleling the thunderous booms.

One time overnight a civil defense alarm sounded to warn of possible incoming fire in Ashkelon, Israel, but the bulk of fire was outgoing, as many Israeli air force planes passed by overhead.

The bomb clouds in Gaza could be seen from Ashkelon in the morning light, and the loud rumble of their explosions could be heard.

The military campaign has hit relevant military targets and stifled the launching of rockets out of Gaza, Israeli authorities said.

Palestinian officials have yet to give a detailed account of damage and death from the night's attacks.

Hamas said that the Israeli air force struck its Interior Ministry, a claim backed up by press photos of fiery rubble where the building once stood and comments retweeted by Leibovich.

But Gazan militants from the Qassam Brigade contradicted Israeli reports that their attacks had lightened up. They claimed to have hit multiple Israeli targets Friday with Grad and Qassam rockets. Qassam announced it had directed a rocket at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, but Leibovich said no rocket had hit there.

High-level visit from Cairo

As Kandil got a first-hand look at fresh destruction and casualties on a tour with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, fears of a ground invasion by Israel seemed to gain support. The Israeli Defense Forces announced Friday they are "recruiting" 16,000 reservists, according to a Twitter post by Leibovich.

The Israeli army has already moved nearly a division's worth of troops -- perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 -- to the border, an Israeli official has said on condition of anonymity.

Haniyeh warned Israel that a new Egypt born out of the Arab Spring would get tough on Palestinians' behalf.

"Egypt is now putting across that the time has changed and the equations on the ground have changed," Haniyeh exclaimed to cameras at al-Shifa Hospital, with Kandil standing by his side. "No longer the Israeli occupation will be able to carry out their attacks against the Palestinians without being held responsible. That time is far bygone," he said.

Kandil openly showed emotion over the death of a year-old boy. He read a verse out of the Quran in respect to the fallen Palestinians.

His rhetoric toward Israel was more diplomatic than his Hamas counterpart's, though his voice was halting, and he struggled at times to get his words out.

"No one can remain still and watch this tragedy unfold in this fashion," Kandil said. "This is impossible. The whole world must intervene, and Israel must abide by the agreements and stop the aggression."

Since the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, the Israeli Air Force has targeted over 450 sites in Gaza for what it calls terror activity. In addition to airstrikes, the Israeli navy has taken aim at targets along Gaza's shoreline, the IDF said.

Israel said it has called thousands of residents in Gaza to warn them of strikes and dropped leaflets in Gaza warning Palestinian civilians to "avoid being present in the vicinity of Hamas operatives," the IDF said.

It also said it uses "roof knocking" -- targeting a building "with a loud but nonlethal bomb that warns civilians they are in the vicinity of a weapons cache or other target. This method is used to allow all residents to leave the area before the IDF targets the site with live ammunition."

Well over 400 rockets from Gaza have been fired into Israel since the Israeli operation began Wednesday, the Israeli military said. Israel's Iron Dome defense system has intercepted at least 130, the Israeli Defense Forces said. On the Hamas side, al-Qassam Brigade said on its Twitter feed that it had shot 527 projectiles at Israel by Thursday night.

Q&A: Gaza strikes could be beginning of ground attack

Egypt watches with interest

The armed conflict is likely to further erode Israel's fragile relationship with Egypt, which recalled its ambassador to Israel on Wednesday in protest over the ongoing strikes. It also delivered a formal protest to the Israeli government.

Exiled hardline Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal warned Israel Thursday it could face harsher reactions in the Middle East as a result of the new political climate after the Arab uprisings.

"In Palestine you were outnumbered before the Arab Spring, so imagine how things changed after the Arab Spring," he said from Khartoum in a live interview with Gaza's Al-Aqsa TV.

"The days where Israel used to come and go as it pleases are over!" He speculated that "the new Egypt" would get tougher on the Jewish state.

But language out of Cairo has been less caustic.

On Thursday, when asked by CNN's Hala Gorani if treaties between Egypt and Israel are in danger, the chief of the Egyptian presidential cabinet said no.

"Not at all. Because we have declared several times, repeatedly, that we abide by our international commitments," Mohamed Refa'a al-Tahtawi said. "But respecting a peace treaty does not mean to stay idle or indifferent to what is going on along our borders."

Western officials express concern

The European Union's High Representative Catherine Ashton expressed concern Friday over the mobilization of IDF troops. She urged Israel to be "proportionate" in its response but blamed Gazan militant groups for starting the violent exchange.

"Israel has the right to protect its population from these kinds of attacks," she said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Paneta speaking Friday during a visit to Bangkok, Thailand, said he believes Israel and the Palestinians need to negotiate "a more permanent peace in that region."

"I understand the reasons Israel is doing what they're doing," he said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to his Israeli counterpart Friday stressing the need for de-escalation, according to a statement from 10 Downing St. But "he made clear that Hamas bears the principal responsibility for crisis."

U.N. High Commissioner Navi Pillay expressed "considerable alarm" over the loss of civilian life, which has been heavier on the Palestinian side. She bemoaned the "major upsurge in the number of rocket attacks," by Gazan militants and the targeting of Tel Aviv but she was also appalled at Israeli strikes on densely populated areas.

Tony Blair, envoy for the Middle East Quartet, which is working to bring about a peace agreement, said Thursday: "I don't think we should be of any doubt at all that if this situation continues and it escalates, it's going to be really serious and tragic -- not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but actually it will cause a huge amount of upheaval right across the region, and this is a region, as you know, that doesn't require more upheaval right now."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will go to Egypt and Israel next week because of the rising tensions between Israel and Hamas, a Western diplomat told CNN.


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