Israel pursues diplomacy but presses attacks

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 02-Jan-09 | Author: Isabel Kershner| Source: International Herald Tribune

Palestinians running from the scene of an Israeli air strike on the home of Nizar Rayyan, a senior Hamas leader, in Gaza on Thursday.

JERUSALEM: Israel broadened the scope of its air offensive against the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza on Thursday, destroying important symbols of the government and, for the first time in its six-day-old campaign, killing a senior leader of the militant Islamic group.

With Israeli troops and tanks massing along the border with Gaza in preparation for a possible ground invasion, Israel also pursued diplomatic avenues to explain its positions.

The Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, flew to Paris to meet with French leaders who are seeking ways to promote a cease-fire. Before she left, Livni suggested that Israel was seeking more time for its military operation, which officials say is intended to bring an end to the rocket fire from Gaza that has plagued southern Israel for years.

The Israeli Air Force on Thursday afternoon bombed the house of Nizar Rayyan, a senior Hamas leader, killing him along with his four wives and nine of his children, four of them under the age of 18, Palestinian hospital officials said. An Israeli military spokeswoman, Major Avital Leibovich, described Rayyan as one of the "most extreme" figures of Hamas, which controls Gaza. The military said he had helped plan a deadly suicide bombing in Israel in 2004, had sent his own son on a suicide mission against Jewish settlers in Gaza in 2001 and was advocating renewed suicide missions against Israel in retaliation for the current offensive.

Rayyan was known in Gaza as a highly influential figure with strong links to the military wing of Hamas, particularly in northern Gaza, where he lived, and as a popular Hamas preacher who openly extolled and championed the idea of martyrdom.

The Israeli military said in a statement that there were many secondary explosions after the air attack, "proving that the house was used for storing weaponry." It was also used as a communications center, the statement said, and a tunnel that had been dug under the house was used by Hamas operatives.

Most Hamas leaders in Gaza have been in hiding since the Israeli operation began, but Rayyan was said to have refused to leave his home on ideological grounds. In the past, he had been known to gather supporters to stand on the rooftops of other houses in Gaza that Israel had threatened to strike.

While hundreds of thousands of Gazans have received warnings in the form of telephone messages or fliers that their buildings are Israeli targets, Leibovich said she could not give details or specify whether Rayyan's family had been warned.

Hamas called on Palestinians in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem to mark Friday as a "day of wrath" by holding marches after noon prayers, according to Agence France-Presse.

Hamas has so far responded to the Israeli military assault by firing yet more rockets deeper into the country. On Thursday, a rocket fired from Gaza struck an apartment building in the major port city of Ashdod, about 20 miles north of the Palestinian territory, causing extensive damage but no serious injuries.

Earlier on Thursday, Israeli warplanes and naval forces bombed Hamas security installations, militants' houses and tunnels used for smuggling weapons, as well as symbols of the government like the legislative building — a Gaza landmark — and the Ministry of Justice, the Israeli military said.

In Gaza City, a large section of the main street around the destroyed legislative building was filled with rubble. Armed Hamas security officers in civilian clothes were out on the streets maintaining control.

Medical officials in Gaza said the number of Palestinians killed in the Israeli bombardment had topped 400. While many of the dead were Hamas security personnel, the United Nations said, a quarter of those killed were civilians. Some Israeli officials have put the number of Palestinian civilians killed at closer to 10 percent.

In France — which on Thursday handed over the rotating presidency of the European Union to the Czech Republic — Livni met with President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner for "an exchange of opinions and ideas" and to share information about Israel's intentions and plans, an Israeli official said.

Livni, speaking from Paris, again rejected the idea proposed this week by Kouchner for a 48-hour lull in the fighting for humanitarian purposes.

"There is no humanitarian crisis" in Gaza, she said, "and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce."

The Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly on the French proposal, called it "unrealistic," "hasty" and bordering on "offensive," saying that Israel was already allowing relief supplies into Gaza every day.

The European Union has in the meantime issued a statement calling for an "immediate and permanent cease-fire," including an "unconditional halt to rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel and an end to Israeli military action."

But as she left for Paris, Livni told Israel Radio that Jerusalem would not agree to a cease-fire at this point and that it would continue with its military operation. "This is not a short battle and it is not a single battle, and we have long-range goals," Livni said.

Sarkozy is now scheduled to stop in Israel on Monday during a tour of the Middle East.

Israel's stated goal for its operation is to halt the rocket fire from Gaza and to create a new security situation in southern Israel, where three civilians and a soldier have been killed in rocket attacks in the past six days.

Israeli officials have been less clear about whether or not they hope to topple Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and then took full control of Gaza after routing forces loyal to the rival Palestinian Authority in June 2007.

But in attacking symbols of the government on Thursday, Israel seemed to be blurring the lines. The military said in a statement on Thursday that Hamas government sites "serve as a critical component of the terrorist group's infrastructure in Gaza."

Israel, like the United States and the European Union, classifies Hamas as a terrorist group. Livni has emphasized that Israel will not accept Hamas's rule as legitimate unless the organization fulfills conditions set by the international community, including recognizing Israel's right to exist, renouncing all violence and accepting previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians — conditions that Hamas has so far rejected.

Israeli officials have said they will work with allies to build a durable, long-term truce while seeking to increase humanitarian aid to Gaza, a measure that will help prolong the Israeli military's ability to act.

Israeli human rights groups on Thursday issued an urgent appeal to Ehud Barak, the defense minister, demanding that Israel restore fuel supplies to Gaza to ensure the proper functioning of hospitals, water wells and other vital humanitarian institutions.

Sari Bashi, the director of one of the groups, Gisha, which advocates the free movement of Palestinians, said that while food and medicine were coming into Gaza, the supply of fuel was "extremely minimal" for the past two months.

Mirek Topolanek, the Czech prime minister, told Czech television that organizing a cease-fire would be the European Union's "main role in the coming days and weeks."

The European Union initiative said the cessation of fighting "should allow lasting and normal opening of all border crossings" to Gaza, a fundamental Hamas demand for any renewal of the six-month truce that expired on Dec. 19. But the European initiative suggests that the crossings should be operated by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with European monitors, a provision that Hamas is likely to reject.