Israel destroyed the headquarters of Hamas’ prime minister and blasted a sprawling network of smuggling tunnels in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday, broadening a blistering four-day-old offensive against the Islamic militant group even as diplomatic efforts to broker a cease-fire appeared to be gaining steam.
The Jerusalem Post is reporting that world leaders are beginning to fly into the Middle East in an effort to halt the violence that exploded last week between Gaza and Israel, and those that can’t fly in are weighing in remotely. Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar are already working on an agreement, according to reports, and now UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon and various European leaders are beginning to lend their voices to the endeavor, as well.
Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton strongly defended Israel’s position in the conflict, according to the Jerusalem Post:
“The rocket attacks by Hamas and other factions in Gaza, which began this current crisis, are totally unacceptable for any government and must stop…Israel has the right to protect its population from these kind of attacks. I urge Israel to ensure that its response is proportionate…I am deeply concerned at the escalating violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip and deplore the loss of civilian lives on both sides.”
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly called on Hamas to “to immediately stop shooting rockets from Gaza into Israel,” citing Hamas as the party “responsible for the outbreak of violence.”
“There is no justification for the shooting of rockets at Israel, which has led to massive suffering of the civilian population,” German spokesman Georg Streiter added.
The office of the UN Secretary-General’s seemed less inclined to cite an aggressor, simply begging for a stop to the “dangerous escalation” and restored “calm.”
Concluding that the rockets must stop “at once,” the UN reportedly added that “Israel must exercise maximum restraint.”
And the Jerusalem Post has the latest from the Arab League:
There were “some indications” of the possibility of a cease-fire soon, but there were “no guarantees” yet, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said.
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who is in Cairo, held talks on Saturday with Mohamed Shehata, head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, on the possibility of achieving a cease-fire, sources close to Hamas said.
The Arab League in Cairo on Saturday said it backed Egypt’s effort to secure a truce. It plans to send a delegation to Gaza in the coming days.
Israeli military officials expressed satisfaction with their progress Saturday, claiming they have inflicted heavy damage to Hamas.
“Most of their capabilities have been destroyed,” Maj. Gen. Tal Russo, Israel’s southern commander, told reporters.
And it hasn’t been easy, they note.
“Most of their weapons are stored in civilian’s homes, they launch rockets from residential areas. We do not want to hit civilians in Gaza but we do want to hit the hornets’ nest of terror in Gaza,” he explained.
Hamas has unveiled an arsenal of more powerful, longer-range rockets this week, and for the first time has struck at Israel’s two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Both cities, more than 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Gaza, had previously been beyond rocket range.
CBS News has more on Egypt’s efforts, in particular, to broker a cease-fire:
In a psychological boost for Israel, a new rocket-defense system known as “Iron Dome” knocked down a rocket headed toward Tel Aviv over the weekend, but Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak has still authorized the emergency call-up of up to 75,000 reserve troops ahead of a possible ground offensive.
Israeli officials reiterated that they are not interested in a “timeout” of hostilities, and want firm guarantees that the rocket fire, which has paralyzed life in an area home to 1 million Israelis, finally ends.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he spoke with the leaders of Britain, Poland, Portugal, Bulgaria to press his case. “No government in the world would allow a situation where its population lives under the constant threat of rockets,” Netanyahu told them, according to a statement from his office.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.