The Cable

U.S. Presses Israel to Wind Down Gaza Offensive

The United States ratcheted up pressure on Israel to wind down its military offensive in Gaza, arguing that the more than 630 Palestinians who have been killed there — most of whom were civilians — underscored the need to secure an immediate cease-fire. While the United States blamed Hamas for being the greatest obstacle to ...

Photo by Andrew Burton/ Getty Images
Photo by Andrew Burton/ Getty Images

The United States ratcheted up pressure on Israel to wind down its military offensive in Gaza, arguing that the more than 630 Palestinians who have been killed there — most of whom were civilians — underscored the need to secure an immediate cease-fire.

While the United States blamed Hamas for being the greatest obstacle to a cease-fire, American officials signaled that they aren’t prepared to give Israel a free hand to continue its military campaign against the Islamist group. Israel has used airstrikes and ground forces to pound Hamas in an effort to destroy its missile caches and seal off the tunnels it has dug that reach from Gaza into Israel. The militant group, undeterred, has killed at least 27 Israeli soldiers while continuing to fire volleys of rockets toward major Israeli cities.

Speaking before the U.N. Security Council, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said a "cease-fire as soon as possible is essential." Power’s remarks came as Israel’s military offensive against Hamas in Gaza reached the 15-day mark with no sign of winding down, fueling a growing wave of criticism that Israel has killed too many civilians in its battle against the militants.

"As grave as the situation is now — and it is indeed grave — it can get worse. If the fighting persists, it will," Power said at a public meeting of the Security Council. "That is why the United States will not rest until a cease-fire is achieved and the underlying issues fueling the conflict are addressed."

Power spoke as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and other regional leaders gathered in the Middle East to try to resuscitate an Egyptian-led effort to negotiate a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas.

Hamas had previously rejected Egypt’s appeal for a cease-fire on the grounds that the group had not been consulted about the proposal and that the proposal failed to address key demands, like the lifting of the blockade on Gaza and the release of Palestinian prisoners envisioned to be freed as part of this year’s aborted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Speaking to the Security Council via a video link from Ramallah, Ban reinforced Power’s call for a cease-fire, saying the "horror and upheaval is beyond imagination." Ban said that any cease-fire deal would have to "support durable political, security, institutional, and socioeconomic progress that stabilizes Gaza" and ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians "feel a sense of security."

"I have carried a three-part message at every turn of my visit. First, stop the fighting. Second, start the dialogue. Third, tackle the root causes," Ban said. "Suffice it to say that it is my hope and belief that these talks will lead to results and an end to the fighting in the very near future."

In New York, Israel’s deputy permanent representative, David Roet, said that Israel had gone to war with Hamas reluctantly. Palestinian militants, he said, have fired a grand total of 12,000 rockets at civilian targets in Israel over the past decade.

Hamas, he added, has entered a new front in its conflict with Israel, building a network of underground tunnels that exposes Israel to fresh attacks. "Since entering Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces have uncovered 23 tunnels with over 66 entry points, many of which are under homes and schools," he said.

"Trust me when I tell you — Gaza is the very last place that we want our soldiers to be. This is not a war we chose. It was our last resort," he said. "Three times — three different times — Israel agreed to accept a cease-fire, and every single time, Hamas refused and launched even more rockets."

Jordan, Israel’s closest Arab ally, circulated a draft text of a resolution condemning Israel’s conduct and calling for an immediate cease-fire. Diplomats, however, said it was unlikely that the United States would support the resolution, particularly at a time when its top diplomat is in the region seeking to negotiate an end to the fighting. Arab diplomats, meanwhile, criticized the 15-nation council for failing to adopt a formal resolution.

"What is the point of the Security Council if it does not go into action now?" asked Saudi Arabia’s U.N. ambassador, Abdallah al-Mouallimi.

But the efforts of international mediators seeking to negotiate a cease-fire agreement have been confounded by one nagging question: How can you craft a deal ending the fighting that won’t reward, and strengthen, Hamas for precipitating the conflict through a rain of rockets on Israeli targets?

"This crisis erupted because Hamas was in a corner: It was weak politically, weak economically, and strong militarily," said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It lost its foothold in Syria, and it’s being squeezed by Israel and Egypt."

If Hamas succeeds in securing concessions from Israel and the international community for accepting a cease-fire, its standing among Palestinians could benefit, he said. "It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that if there is a deal, Hamas will be able to point to some kind of political gains."

As Ban and other diplomats pursued a cease-fire, Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, called on the United Nations to launch an immediate investigation into reports that Hamas has stored stockpiles of weapons in U.N.-administered schools.

"I was appalled to hear reports, one as recent as today, of stockpiles of rockets in a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza," he said. "Even more alarming were reports that in the first case, officials with the United Nations returned these weapons to Hamas, a listed terrorist organization, once Israeli officials discovered their location."

"If proven true, this would fly in the face of all that the United Nations should stand for," he added.

The U.N. relief agency (UNRWA) announced last week that during a routine inspection it had discovered about 20 rockets hidden in a U.N. -administered school in Gaza, and condemned it. Chris Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA, told the Daily Beast that the U.N. turned over the rockets to the local police, who, he said, report to the Palestinian government in Ramallah, and not to Hamas.

Ban said Tuesday that it was "unacceptable" that armed groups had used U.N. premises to store weapons. But he praised UNRWA’s role in the crisis, saying the agency is "providing crucial relief and shelter to civilians in imminent danger."

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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