Palestinians carry the bodies of two children during their funeral in northern Gaza on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Jerusalem, Nov. 20: Diplomatic efforts accelerated today to end the deadly confrontation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, as the US sent secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton to West Asia and Egypt’s President and his senior aides expressed confidence that a ceasefire was close.
The diplomatic moves to end the nearly week-old crisis came on a day of some of the most intense violence yet. Militants in Gaza fired a barrage of rockets towards the southern Israeli city of Beersheba and longer-range rockets towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but neither main city was struck. Israeli forces responded with an aerial assault on several targets including a suspected launching site near Gaza’s Al Shifa hospital, which killed at least nine people. A delegation visiting from the Arab League postponed a news conference at the hospital because of the Israeli assault, as wailing ambulances brought victims in, some of them decapitated.
Senior Egyptian officials in Cairo said Israel and Hamas were “very close” to a cease-fire agreement that could be announced within hours. “We have not received final approval but I hope to receive it any moment,” said Essam el Haddad, President Mohamed Morsi’s top national security adviser.
The announcement of Hillary Clinton’s active role in efforts to defuse the crisis added a strong new dimension to the multinational push to avert a new West Asia war. Israel has amassed thousands of soldiers on the border with Gaza and has threatened to invade the crowded Palestinian enclave for the second time in four years to stop the persistent rockets that have been lobbed at Israel.
Hillary Clinton, who accompanied President Obama on his three-country Asia trip, left Cambodia on her own plane immediately for West Asia. She was en route to Jerusalem to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, then head to the West Bank to meet Palestinian leaders and finally to Cairo to consult Egyptian officials.
In Cairo, President Morsi added to the atmosphere of guarded optimism. The official West Asia News Agency quoted him as saying Israel’s “aggression” against Gaza would end, and Egyptian-mediated efforts would produce “positive results” in several hours.
The decision to dispatch Hillary Clinton dramatically deepens the American involvement in the crisis. Obama made a number of late-night phone calls from his Asian tour to West Asia last night that contributed to his conclusion that he had to become more engaged and that Hillary Clinton might be able to accomplish something.
With Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, also in Israel today, a senior official in the Prime Minister’s office said Israel had decided to give more time to diplomacy before launching a ground invasion into Gaza. But Israel has not withdrawn other options.
“I prefer a diplomatic solution,” Netanyahu said in a statement at the start of a meeting in Jerusalem with the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle. “I hope that we can get one, but if not, we have every right to defend ourselves.
“As you know, we seek a diplomatic unwinding to this, through the discussions of ceasefire,” Netanyahu added. “But if the firing continues, we will have to take broader action and we won’t hesitate to do so.”
Intensifying the pressure on Hamas after a day of heavy rocket fire out of Gaza against southern Israel, the Israeli military said this afternoon that it had distributed leaflets over Gaza instructing the Palestinian residents in several areas to evacuate their homes immediately, “for your safety”.