Gaza siege shaping up as deadliest Israeli conflict in a decade
As Palestinian and Israeli casualties continue to grow at alarming pace, analysts fear that absence of clear exit strategy could prolong fighting
Palestinian and Israeli casualties are mounting at a pace that could surpass any other Israeli conflict in nearly a decade, amid signs of a deepening military and political stalemate driven by diplomatic gridlock, Palestinian militant resilience and the absence of a clear Israeli exit strategy.
The rising death toll in the Gaza conflict propelled US and European diplomats huddled in Paris to call for an extension of a 12-hour humanitarian truce on Saturday that had afforded both sides a brief respite from the nearly three-week-old conflict.
Late on Saturday night, Israel approved a 24-hour extension of the truce, but called it off after Hamas launched rockets into southern and central Israel, and Palestinian medics said at least 10 people had died in the wave of subsequent strikes that swept Gaza.
Hamas militants agreed yesterday to a 24-hour humanitarian truce, a spokesman for the group said, adding that the calm should start at 2pm local time.
But as both Hamas and Israel continued to launch attacks, each side blamed the other for scuttling the efforts.
Hamas said that "due to the lack of commitment" by Israel, it resumed its fire. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas showed it could not be trusted after it violated other ceasefire efforts.
"Hamas doesn't even accept its own ceasefire, it's continuing to fire at us as we speak," he said in an interview with CNN, adding that Israel would "take whatever action is necessary to protect our people".
Nonetheless, Gaza Strip residents said Israeli shelling and Hamas missile launches had decreased through the afternoon, suggesting a de-facto truce might be taking shape as international efforts to broker a permanent ceasefire appear to flounder.
Before the initial truce began on Saturday, six more Israeli soldiers were killed in battles across the Gaza Strip, Israel's military said, bringing the total to 42 since Israel's ground offensive began nine days ago. The deaths are one-third the number of Israeli soldiers who died over 33 days in Israel's 2006 war with Lebanon.
Palestinian deaths rose to 1,060 yesterday, according to Gaza health officials, a dramatic increase since the beginning of the ground incursion. In Israel's 2009 Gaza offensive, about 1,400 Palestinians were killed.
Increasingly, the conflict is becoming a war of attrition.
Hamas has shown a determination to confront Israel with well-trained fighters, clear combat strategies and rockets - as well as its tunnel networks.
Now, Israel is confronting the same divisive questions it faced in its war with Lebanon: what are its goals in Gaza, and how long does it remain there to achieve them? Israel is torn between wanting a durable ceasefire and wanting to destroy Hamas' ability to torment Israelis.
"The more you drag on, the more you stay there, the more the exit strategy becomes a blur," said Yossi Melman, an Israeli intelligence analyst.
"We will be trapped there, and we will have more casualties. If we don't have a clear vision of what we want to achieve, we unwittingly will find ourselves reoccupying Gaza again."
In Paris, envoys from Qatar, Turkey, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the United States worked late into the night on Saturday in an attempt to win an extension of the ceasefire.
They view a truce lasting several days - the goal of diplomatic efforts that fell short last week in Cairo - as a bridge to a sustainable ceasefire that would clear a path to addressing both sides' demands.
Israel wants to see Hamas demilitarised, while Hamas' core demand is the lifting of an economic blockade of Gaza by both Israel and Egypt.
However, US Secretary of State John Kerry flew back to Washington after the meeting in Paris, with no sign of progress.
Additional reporting by Reuters
Destroying Hamas 'would lead to something worse for region'
A top Pentagon intelligence official says the destruction of Hamas would only lead to something more dangerous taking its place.
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the outgoing head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, disparaged Hamas for exhausting finite resources to build tunnels that have helped it inflict record casualties on Israelis. Still, he suggested that destroying Hamas was not the answer.
"If Hamas were destroyed and gone, we would probably end up with something much worse. The region would end up with something much worse," Flynn said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.
"A worse threat that would come into the sort of ecosystem there, something like ISIS," he added, referring to the Islamic State, which last month declared an "Islamic caliphate" in territory it controls in Iraq and Syria.
Flynn's comments about the conflict came during a gloomy broader assessment of unrest across the Middle East, including in Syria and Iraq. Flynn said bluntly: "Is there going to be a peace in the Middle East? Not in my lifetime."