After nine days of Israeli aerial assaults that have killed more than 200 people in Gaza, Israel and militant groups in the territory said late Wednesday that they would suspend the attacks for five hours Thursday as a humanitarian gesture at the request of the United Nations. But a senior Israeli military official said the likelihood of a ground invasion to eliminate militants’ rockets launched from Gaza was “very high.”
“If you want to efficiently fight terrorism you must be present – boots on the ground,” said the official, who has been briefing Israeli ministers who make strategic decisions. He said his assessment was based on “the signals I get” and the diminishing returns of aerial bombardments. He said an Israeli takeover of Gaza is “not a huge challenge,” estimating it would take “a matter of days or weeks,” but that preventing a more dangerous devolution in the coastal enclave would require an occupation “of many months.”
“Every day that passes makes the possibility more evident,” the official told international journalists in a briefing at the military’s Tel Aviv headquarters. “We can hurt them very hard from the air but not get rid of them.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity under military protocol.
The stark assessment came as Israel bombed 60 targets, most of them in northern Gaza, after warning 100,000 residents to evacuate their homes by 8 a.m. via leaflets, text messages and automated telephone calls. The Palestinian death toll reached at least 214 by Wednesday evening, including four children killed in a strike on the seashore.
The lone Israeli casualty, a 37-year-old man killed by a mortar round as he distributed food to soldiers Tuesday night near the Erez crossing, was eulogized by Israel’s president-elect, Reuven Rivlin, at an afternoon funeral.
Late Wednesday, the Israeli military announced that it would halt its bombing of Gaza from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday to provide residents with what it called a “humanitarian window.” The pause was requested by Robert H. Serry, the U.N. special envoy for the Middle East peace process. Hamas on Thursday agreed to join the temporary ceasefire, spokesman Sami Abu Zukhri said in a statement.
The Israeli military said it would “respond firmly and decisively” if the militants “exploited” the window to attack Israel.
Scores of rockets from Gaza continued to fly into Israel, several of them intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defence system over Tel Aviv and the southern city of Ashkelon. Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that dominates Gaza, on Wednesday officially rejected an Egyptian ceasefire proposal that Israel had initially approved Tuesday. Israeli news outlets reported that Hamas had made its own proposal, offering 10 years of quiet in exchange for the full reopening of Gaza border crossings and the release of 50 Palestinians who were recently rearrested after been released in a 2011 exchange for a captured Israeli soldier.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo on Wednesday to discuss ceasefire terms.
But in Israel, Tuesday’s cautious embrace of a truce had been replaced by increasing chatter about the possibility of an imminent ground operation, as the government moved to call up 8,000 additional reservists, adding to the 42,000 already mobilized.
Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Wednesday that an invasion of Gaza was “definitely an option.”
“It’s being discussed – I can’t go beyond that,” he said. Asked about the military official’s characterization of the likelihood as “very high,” Mr. Regev said, “That’s a professional opinion of the military.” Then he added, “But you can be assured that opinion was expressed by the military to the political wing.”
Mr. Netanyahu has been under pressure from some members of his Cabinet and party to start a ground operation. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has been at turns partner and rival to the prime minister, reiterated his call for a more substantial operation against Hamas on Wednesday, as did Yuval Steinitz, the minister of strategic affairs, who has been a Netanyahu stalwart and frequent mouthpiece.
“To the best of my understanding, it is not possible to ensure summer vacation, a normal summer for our kids, without a ground operation in Gaza,” Mr. Lieberman said during a visit to Ashkelon, where he and his entourage had to run for cover at one point as sirens warned of incoming rockets, which were intercepted and destroyed by the Iron Dome system in dramatic fashion.
“We don’t need to rule Gaza, or build settlements in Gaza,” he added. “We need to ensure that all Hamas terrorists run away, are imprisoned, or die.”
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