Netanyahu: If Rockets Continue, We'll Launch Ground Operation in Gaza

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In talks with a number of world leaders over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is amenable to a comprehensive cease-fire being effected as soon as possible in the Gaza Strip, on condition that the rockets being fired into Israel from the Palestinian territory stop. His foreign counterparts asked Netanyahu not to escalate the fighting and to give Egypt's intensive mediation efforts a few days to bear fruit.

During the weekend Netanyahu spoke to U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. In all these conversations Netanyahu said he was open to reaching a cease-fire within the next few days. According to a number of Western diplomats, Netanyahu asked the leaders to intercede with Egypt to put pressure on Hamas, and made it clear that in the event the rockets did not stop Israel would be forced to invade Gaza with ground forces.

On Friday the cabinet approved, in a telephone poll of ministers, Defense Minister Ehud Barak's request to issue call-up notices to up to 75,000 reservists. Only 16,000 reserve soldiers had been authorized previously. A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office has said that notwithstanding the ongoing preparations for a ground operation, Netanyahu would prefer to avoid a major ground incursion and will consider a cease-fire if his terms are met. The official said that any ground operation would be relatively limited in scope.

In his talks with the foreign leaders Netanyahu stressed that Israel is demanding a comprehensive cease-fire, meaning an end to all rocket fire and other attacks from the Gaza Strip, including targeting Israel Defense Forces soldiers along the border with Gaza. In addition, Israel wants to guarantee a long-term cease-fire.

Netanyahu expressed satisfaction with his conversation with Obama on Friday, their second within a few days, and said he felt the U.S. president was giving Israel considerable support. The Prime Minister's Office did not deny the remarks attributed to Netanyahu, stating only "we do not comment on these issues."

Growing pressure on Israel to end operation

Statements issued by the European Union have also shown support for Israel and placed responsibility for the current situation on Hamas. Over the less public diplomatic channels, however, international pressure is growing for an end to the operation.

For example, the statement issued by the White House after the second conversation between Obama and Netanyahu, on Friday, included a formula that was absent from the statement that followed their first talk since the military operation began. "The two leaders also discussed options for 'de-escalating' the situation in Israel and Gaza," it said.

According to a European diplomat and a senior Israeli official, Obama, Merkel and Monti all told Netanyahu they supported Israel's right to defend itself and that Hamas had to stop firing rockets before a cease-fire could be declared.

A senior American official said the United States was not in favor of Israel expanding its military option and stressed the importance of giving Egypt's efforts a chance to take effect.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague sent a similar message on Friday, telling BBC Radio "Israel does have to bear in mind that it is when ground invasions have taken place in previous conflicts that they have lost international support and a great deal of sympathy around the world."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will visit both Israel and Egypt tomorrow in an effort to facilitate a cease-fire. UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon is set to arrive in the region on Tuesday.

The international pressure being placed on Israel has been accompanied by pressure on Egypt to force Hamas into accepting a cease-fire. Both Obama and Merkel called Mohammad Morsi just a few minutes after they spoke with Netanyahu, and asked the Egyptian president to turn up the pressure on Hamas.

Obama commended Egyptian efforts to help calm the situation in Israel and Gaza and underscored his hope of restoring stability there, the White House said. A Western diplomat said that Merkel told Morsi that Egypt has an important mediating role to play, and that it must press the Palestinian organizations to stop firing rockets at Israel.

The American official noted that Obama asked Morsi to act as quickly as possible to get Hamas to hold its fire.

Western diplomats say Morsi told Obama and Merkel he was doing all he could to effect a comprehensive, durable cease-fire. Morsi also emphasized that he had no intention of doing anything that would end the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

Cairo conclave

Morsi, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, met in Cairo last night with Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, as part of efforts to bring an end to the hostilities between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Speaking at Cairo University Saturday Erdogan said Israel would be held to account for its "massacre" of innocent children in Gaza.

Also Saturday, Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo in an emergency session gave their backing to the Egyptian efforts to secure a truce, according to a statement issued after an Arab League meeting in the Egyptian capital. The statement condemned what it called Israeli "aggression" and called for the UN Security Council to take the necessary steps to halt the violence and "protect the Palestinian people."

It said Arab foreign ministers would travel to Gaza in a show of support. Arab League chief Nabil Al-Araby told reporters he would lead the delegation, which was set to arrive in the Strip on Sunday. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Maliki is expected to join the delegation.

Visitors to Gaza Saturday included Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdesslem, who said his country would work in the United Nations and the Arab League to stop Israel's "flagrant aggression" in the Strip.

"Israel should understand that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river," Abdesslem said as he surveyed the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, which was reduced to rubble in an overnight Israeli air strike.

"[Israel] should realize it no longer has a free hand. It does not have total immunity and is not above international law," Abdesslem added.

Speaking at the Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo Saturday Al-Araby said Arab League member states should "reconsider all past Arab initiatives on the peace process" with Israel "and review their stance on the process as a whole," and proposed appointing a special panel to examine the issue.

But the most important steps taken this weekend toward a cease-fire were made by Egyptian intelligence officials and their leader, Intelligence Minister Rafat Shehata.

Shehata met in Cairo with Meshal and his deputy in the Hamas politburo, Moussa Abu Marzouk, in an effort to draw the broad outlines of a cease-fire. But Hamas is insisting that in exchange for a cease-fire Israel must completely lift its blockade of the Strip and end its assassinations of militant leaders. Hamas is also demanding international guarantees to ensure that Israel does not violate the truce.

Civilians seeking shelter near the Iron Dome battery in Tel Aviv as an air-raid siren sounded Saturday. Credit: Oren Ziv
Security forces examining the site where a Grad fell in Be’er Sheva on Saturday.Credit: Ilan Assayag

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