With Israeli tanks rolling deeper into Gaza, a senior Palestinian official appealed to the U.N. Security Council to demand that Israel cease its military operations in Gaza, warning that his government is weighing an appeal for an international investigation into possible Israeli war crimes.
"We call on the Security Council to adopt a resolution that condemns the Israeli military aggression against the Palestinian civilian population in the Gaza Strip, calls for its immediate cessation, calls for the lifting of the Israeli blockade on Gaza Strip, and calls for protection of the Palestinian people," Palestine’s U.N. envoy, Riyad Mansour, told the Security Council in an emergency session on Gaza.
Mansour said that if the Security Council failed to respond to his government’s appeals, the Palestinian Authority would "have no recourse but to turn to the judicial bodies of the United Nations and the international system."
The remark appeared to be a veiled warning that the Palestinians were prepared to ask the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) to probe Israel’s military conduct.
The Palestinians had previously agreed to hold off on asking for an ICC investigation into Israeli conduct as long as U.S.-brokered peace talks showed signs of progress.
With those talks in shambles, however, the Palestinians clearly feel prepared to move ahead.
Israel’s U.N. envoy, Ron Prosor, fired back, telling the 15-nation council that Israel was "left with no choice" but to act militarily in the face of more than 1,500 rocket attacks by Hamas militants against Israeli civilian targets, the kidnapping of Israeli teens, and the specter of "jihadists tunneling under our borders" to launch raids against Israeli towns.
"We did everything in our power to avoid this," he said. "Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu made the courageous decision to accept every cease-fire offered — even as the people of Israel were under attack. But Hamas rejected every overture to restore the quiet."
The Palestinian request comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at resolving the worsening Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
In a telephone conversation on Friday, July 18, with Netanyahu, U.S. President Barack Obama said that Secretary of State John Kerry was working to promote Egypt’s diplomatic effort to reach a cease-fire and that Kerry was prepared to travel to the region when the time was ripe.
Obama "reaffirmed" his "strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself," saying to reporters that "no nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders or terrorists tunneling into its territory." But he added that Washington and its allies are "deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life." Obama urged Netanyahu to conduct its military operation in a way that "minimizes civilian casualties."
The current spike in fighting comes just after Israeli forces and Hamas agreed to a U.N.-brokered humanitarian pause that spared Israelis from rocket fire for five hours and allowed Palestinians to purchase basics to repair some of the damage caused by Israeli strikes, the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, told the Security Council.
But the calm was broken when Palestinian militants resumed their rocket attacks on Israel. Shortly afterward, Netanyahu sent ground troops into Gaza and sharply escalated Israel’s air war against Hamas targets. The strikes are designed to erode Hamas’s capacity to fire missiles or to infiltrate Israel through a network of underground tunnels.
Since July 8, Palestinian militants have fired more than 2,000 rockets into Israel, of which 1,100 were blocked by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, according to Feltman. Two Israelis have been killed as a result of the conflict, including one civilian, while 377 Israelis have been injured, including 12 soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces.
Israel responded by carrying out some 1,900 strikes into Gaza from the land, air, and sea. Altogether, "some 250 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, including over 50 children, have been killed, and over 1,900 more have been injured," Feltman said.
"Israel has legitimate security concerns, and we condemn the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza into Israel that ended [Thursday’s] temporary cease-fire," Feltman said. "But we are alarmed by Israel’s heavy response."
Feltman said that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "was shocked" by an Israeli strike that killed four Palestinian children as they played on the beach.
The Palestinian request for U.N. action followed days of frustrating diplomatic negotiations among Arab governments seeking to salvage the Egyptian-led effort to broker a cease-fire.
In a series of closed-door meetings on Thursday and Friday morning, Arab ambassadors agreed to back the Palestinians’ call for U.N. action. But there was no final agreement on the precise terms of a draft U.N. Security Council resolution, according to Arab diplomats. It also remains unclear whether the United States would be prepared to support a resolution that lacked the support of Israel.
That effort has been complicated by Egypt’s deteriorating relationship with Hamas and Cairo’s effort to ensure that any deal strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s government.
For instance, one idea calls for the Palestinian Authority, which is led by Abbas, to deploy forces near the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. In exchange, Egypt would agree to reopen Rafah, a move that would present Abbas with a rare diplomatic success. Abbas, meanwhile, has asked the United Nations to send an international protection force to Gaza to protect Palestinians, an initiative that is unlikely to gain the backing of Israel, key European powers, or the United States, according to Security Council diplomats.
Hamas is a close ally of Egypt’s now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, one of whose leading figures, former President Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown by a military coup engineered by Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
"Here’s the thing: The current Egyptian government considers itself at war with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine," said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and a contributor to Foreign Policy.
Hamas — the principal military power in Gaza — rejected Sisi’s cease-fire plan, claiming that Egyptian diplomats had never consulted it and that the plan meets none of Hamas’s demands, including its call for the lifting of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Analysts say Egypt is seeking to strike a bargain that would strengthen the hand of Abbas while weakening the hand of Hamas. But a deal seems unattainable as long as Hamas retains the ability to fight on.
"There is desire to see the fighting stop because it creates problems of instability and plays into the hands of Hamas," said Ibish. But Egypt "is weary about Hamas emerging as a major victor as a consequence of a cease-fire," he added. "The takeaway would be that rocket fire and violence works and diplomacy gets you nothing."