Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly ignored the United States’ strongest call on Wednesday to end fighting with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, but there were growing indications that he would accede to international pressure for a ceasefire.
A tenth day of intense firefight saw Israeli forces once again carry out airstrikes against dozens of militant targets in the small coastal enclave, while Palestinian militants fired new rounds of rockets at Israeli towns.
Early Thursday in Gaza City, orange flashes lit the sky, as thunder from massive bombing drowned out the morning call to prayer.
The fighting killed at least 227 Palestinians, including 64 children, and 12 people on the Israeli side, including a small child, a teenager and a soldier.
The White House announced that President Biden told Netanyahu in a phone call Wednesday – their second in three days – that he expected to see “significant de-escalation today” as part of a move towards a truce.
Netanyahu said shortly after that he was “determined to continue this operation until its goal is achieved”, although he associated this with a phrase of appreciation for “the support of the US president.”
It was difficult to assess whether Netanyahu’s apparent shrug of the shoulders to the public appeal of Israel’s closest ally reflected a genuine intention to continue an offensive that disrupted the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Israelis, while sowing death and devastation in Gaza, a country already beaten. corner of the region.
A former high-ranking military chief, speaking on Israel’s Channel 12, said the prime minister had no choice but to follow Biden’s wishes, even as he signaled he was ready to continue the military offensive indefinitely.
“It must be clear that Israel hears [Biden], even if we do not accept the end of the fighting tonight, ”said retired major general Amos Yadlin, former deputy commander of the air force.
The prime minister’s insistence on reserving the right to punish Hamas, even at the cost of a worsening humanitarian crisis and many Palestinian civilian lives in Gaza, may play well with its hard domestic base. But Yadlin suggested that in the longer term, it could harm Israel’s relationship with the 4-month-old US administration.
“Netanyahu is missing an opportunity to strengthen Israel’s ties with Biden,” he said.
In addition to the warnings from the Biden administration, the European Union and several European leaders are urging an early end to the fighting.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he would travel to the region on Thursday for talks, and Qatar and Egypt were reportedly involved in mediation efforts.
A senior Hamas politician, Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, said in a television interview Wednesday that he expected the fighting to end within a day or two.
“I hope the ceasefire efforts are successful,” Abu Marzook, who lives in exile, told Al Mayadeen television, a channel affiliated with the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
But Hamas was careful to underline its determination to continue the fight. Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh, in an online statement, claimed that “the resistance has a long life” and “the capacity to continue the battle”.
Israeli reports suggest that while Israel wants an exit from the fighting, Netanyahu’s government does not want it to appear like the United States is dictating the strategy of the battlefield.
“Israel will decide the timetable for a ceasefire,” Eitan Ginzburg, the communications minister, told Israel’s Channel 11.
Domestically, the Israeli campaign in Gaza has been criticized in some quarters for its lack of a clear purpose beyond the general objective of seeking to degrade Hamas’ military strength, but commentators have said anyway , the decision to end the offensive would not be motivated primarily by security. concerns.
“It’s a political decision, not a military one,” said Roni Daniel, a veteran military affairs reporter, speaking on Channel 12.
The most serious fight in seven years between Israel and Hamas has erupted after weeks of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem, the powder keg of so many past fires.
Palestinians were particularly angered by a police raid on the Aqsa Mosque, the holiest Islamic site in the Old City, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Tensions were also exacerbated by aggressive policing during weeks of protests in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem, where several Palestinian families were at risk of being evicted to make way for Jewish settlers.
Even as the fighting in Gaza rages on, the conflict has widened to the West Bank, where Israeli troops have engaged in violent clashes with Palestinians, and to Israeli towns and villages, where Palestinian citizens of Israel have organized protests and sometimes clashed with Jewish extremists.
Earlier on Wednesday, rockets fired from Lebanon landed inside Israel, the third such episode in a week. The IDF said it had located four rockets that had been launched, including one landing in an open area, two splashing offshore and one intercepted.
Neither party has claimed responsibility for the rockets fired from Lebanon in recent days.
In the campaign of airstrikes on Gaza, Israel said it was targeting a network of tunnels developed and maintained by Hamas. Wednesday’s latest airstrike focused on the southern Gaza Strip, near the Egyptian border, where the IDF said it had targeted the underground passages with 40 strikes.
On both sides of the border, missile and rocket fire turned neighborhoods into battlefields.
In Khan Yunis, southern Gaza, residents said a compound housing 40 extended family members was razed to the ground by a missile strike. What appeared to be a warning projectile hit the compound moments earlier – a common Israeli military practice indicating that a site was being targeted – and the compound quickly emptied, a panicked exodus that included scores of women. and children, witnesses said.
In the southern Israeli town of Sderot, Israeli television broadcast footage of a house that was hit directly after a man took his nearly 2-year-old daughter to flee to an adjacent bomb shelter. The explosion left sofas covered in gray soot, strewn tiles and the floor littered with bits of debris and concrete.
The father, Ben Buchris, 27, told Channel 12 about his narrow escape.
“It’s a miracle,” he says. “I have no words.”
Conditions were increasingly miserable in Gaza, already grappling with deteriorating infrastructure and a coronavirus outbreak. Electricity and fuel are scarce, as is clean water. Gaza has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockades since Hamas took control of the territory 14 years ago.
In Israel, some seasoned observers of past conflicts have predicted that the fighting will end soon. Mike Herzog, a retired brigadier general, told Israel Radio he believed a ceasefire could take place as early as Thursday.
“It’s hard to see this last much longer,” he said.
Special correspondents Kraft and Salah reported from Tel Aviv and Gaza, respectively, and Times King editor, from Washington. Washington editor-in-chief Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.