GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – International pressure for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip puts Egypt’s new Islamist president in the spotlight yesterday after a sixth day of Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli air strikes that have killed over 100 people.
Israel’s leaders weighed the benefits and risks of sending tanks and infantry into the densely populated coastal enclave two months before an Israeli election, and indicated they would prefer a diplomatic path backed by world powers, including US President Barack Obama, the European Union and Russia.
Any such solution may pass through Egypt, Gaza’s other neighbour and the biggest Arab nation, where the ousting of US ally Hosni Mubarak and election of President Mohamed Mursi is part of a dramatic reshaping of the Middle East, wrought by the Arab Spring and now affecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mursi, whose Muslim Brotherhood was mentor to the founders of Hamas, took a call from Obama yesterday telling him the group must stop rocket fire into Israel – effectively endorsing Israel’s stated aim in launching the offensive last week. Obama, as quoted by the White House, also said he regretted civilian deaths – which have been predominantly among the Palestinians.
“The two leaders discussed ways to de-escalate the situation in Gaza, and President Obama underscored the necessity of Hamas ending rocket fire into Israel,” the White House said.
“President Obama then called Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and received an update on the situation in Gaza and Israel. In both calls, President Obama expressed regret for the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives.”
Three Israeli civilians and 108 Palestinians have been killed. Gaza officials say over half of those killed in the enclave were civilians, 27 of them children.
Mursi has warned Netanyahu of serious consequences from a ground invasion of the kind that left over 1,400 people dead in Gaza four years ago. But he has been careful not to alienate Israel, with whom Egypt’s former military rulers signed a peace treaty in 1979, or Washington, a major aid donor to Egypt.
A meeting today in Cairo between Mursi and Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations who flew in late yesterday, could shed light on the shape of any truce proposals. Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil told Reuters: “I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of negotiation, (means) it is very difficult to predict.”
Israeli media have said Israeli officials are also in Cairo to talk. And Ban is due to meet Netanyahu in Jerusalem soon.
After Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal laid out demands in Cairo that Israel take the first step in restoring calm, and warned Netanyahu that a ground war in Gaza could wreck his re-election prospects in January, a senior Israeli official denied a Hamas assertion that the prime minister had asked for a truce.
“Whoever started the war must end it,” Meshaal said, referring to Israel’s assassination from the air last Wednesday of Hamas’s Gaza military chief, a move that followed a scaling up of rocket fire onto Israeli towns over several weeks.
An official close to Netanyahu told Reuters: “Israel is prepared and has taken steps and is ready for a ground incursion which will deal severely with the Hamas military machine.
“We would prefer to see a diplomatic solution that would guarantee the peace for Israel’s population in the south. If that is possible, then a ground operation would no longer be required,” he added. “If diplomacy fails, we may well have no alternative but to send in ground forces.”