Hamas says cease-fire agreed on, Israel fails to confirm

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited a hospital in Gaza. He broke down in tears when he met with a Gazan who just lost some of his family members and holding arm of his daughter's body. (Photo: AA)

November 20, 2012, Tuesday/ 17:09:00

Israel and Gaza militants have agreed to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire on Tuesday but a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said "we're not there yet". This came after Turkish and Arab ministers visited Gaza, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to the region on Monday after international pressure grew on Hamas and Israel to put an end to a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 100 Palestinians in the past seven days.

"An agreement for calm has been reached. It will be declared at 9 o'clock (1900 GMT) and go into effect at midnight (2200 GMT)," Hamas official Ayman Taha told Reuters from Cairo, where efforts have been under way to end seven days of hostilities.

However, an Israeli government spokesman told CNN on Tuesday that a ceasefire deal with Gaza militants has not been finalized and "ball is still in play".

"Until you're there, you're not there," he said.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier he was open to a long-term deal to halt Palestinian rocket attacks on his country.

Conflicting reports over truce deal

In line with Hamas official Taha, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also confirmed that both sides have agreed to a ceasefire deal. Speaking to the Anatolia news agency on the same day Davutoğlu said a ceasefire deal has been reached and will come into force at midnight.

While conflicting reports about a truce deal have been circulating amongst international media during the day, new statements have added to the murky situation.

A Hamas official said late on Tuesday that Egyptian efforts to broker a truce with Israel had been held up because the Israeli government had yet to respond to proposals, indicating there would be no ceasefire until Wednesday at the earliest.

"The Israeli side has not responded yet, so we will not hold a (news) conference this evening and must wait until tomorrow," Ezzat al-Rishq, a senior Hamas leader, told Reuters. "The truce is now held up because we are waiting for the Israeli side to respond," he added in a short telephone interview.

Talks between Israelis and Palestinians over a Gaza truce are continuing but the Egyptian mediators are still hopeful a deal can be reached later on Tuesday, an Egyptian official said.

The official said Egypt was "hopeful" of an agreement later on Tuesday, adding: "We are more hopeful today than yesterday."

"We are waiting for the Israeli response," he said.

Later in the day, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss how to end the ongoing fighting that left nearly 130 people dead over the past seven days.

Clinton says the United States is pushing for a "durable outcome" promoting stability following Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Clinton spoke alongside Israeli Prime Minister on Tuesday evening after she rushed to the region to help forge a cease-fire after a week of fighting between Israel and Gaza militants.

Turkey, Egypt intensify efforts for truce deal

Egypt, which led the regional efforts for a truce, said earlier on Tuesday that Israeli attacks could end later in the day. “President Mohamed Morsi announced that the farce of Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip will end on Tuesday,” Egyptian news agency MENA said, quoting public remarks made by the country's head of state after the funeral of his sister. “The efforts to conclude a truce between the Palestinian and Israeli sides will produce positive results in the next few hours,” he was quoted as saying.

Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, who visited Gaza along with other ministers from Arab League countries, said prior to his departure that intense efforts were being made to reconcile differences between the Israeli and Hamas sides. “It is clear, in the light of the new circumstances of the region, that the regional countries will not remain silent to the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza,” he told reporters. “It is time for the Palestinians to live in their homeland with dignity.”

Davutoğlu headed to Gaza after meeting a delegation of Arab League foreign ministers and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby in Arish, Egypt. The Gaza mission was decided upon at a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on Saturday. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who met with Morsi and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal during a weekend visit to Cairo, left two of his aides -- Justice and Development Party (AK Party) foreign relations chief Ömer Çelik and head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Hakan Fidan -- in Cairo to carry on with mediation talks in the Egyptian capital.

Davutoğlu also suggested that there were talks with Israel, whose ties with Turkey have been in a state of crisis since an Israeli raid on the aid ship Mavi Marmara in 2010. “Our channels [of communication] are open,” he said. “We know Israel's opinions and there are opinions that have been delivered to us.”

In the meantime the foreign minister visited a hospital in the besieged Gaza City. He offered his condolences to families of victims.

Israel and Hamas both said they are open to Egypt's mediation efforts but they had demands. Israel said Hamas should stop rocket attacks and also demands an end to the smuggling of weapons into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt.

Hamas, on the other hand, said a cease-fire should be simultaneous and wants a US guarantee that Israel will not repeat its attacks as well as an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has been in place since 2007.

Prime Minister Erdoğan has revealed that Turkey endorses Hamas demands for a simultaneous cease-fire and an end to the Gaza blockade and said the US administration should convince Israel for a simultaneous cease-fire. Speaking in Gaza, Davutoğlu also reiterated Turkey's call for the lifting of the “inhumane blockade” of Gaza.

The Israeli offensive in Gaza risks opening a rift between Turkey and the US, which insists that Israel has the right to defend itself from Hamas' Gaza attacks. The US considers Hamas as a terrorist organization and thus has no dialogue with the group, relying on countries like Turkey and Egypt to urge it to stop attacking Israel. Turkey, on the other hand, has bitterly criticized Israel, with Prime Minister Erdoğan accusing it of “ethnic cleansing” and calling it a “terrorist state.” Erdoğan has also rejected the US' remarks highlighting Israel's right to defend itself, saying this does not befit justice.

Clinton hastily departed on Tuesday to the region from Cambodia, where she was accompanying President Barack Obama for a tour of Southeast Asia. The White House said she would make three stops, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Palestinian officials in Ramallah and in the West Bank as well as Egyptian leaders in Cairo.

Continuing attacks

Despite growing hopes for an end to the violence, the situation remained fragile on the ground on Tuesday as Israeli air strikes and Palestinian rocket fire continued for a seventh day. Israeli attacks continued as the Arab League delegation visited Gaza, killing six Palestinians and injuring three, the Anatolia news agency reported. A Hamas rocket attack injured five Israeli soldiers.

A rocket was also launched at Jerusalem, triggering warning sirens but causing no casualties. Israel's military on Tuesday targeted about 100 sites in Gaza, including ammunition stores and the Gaza headquarters of the National Islamic Bank, Reuters said. Israeli police said more than 60 rockets were fired from Gaza by mid-day, and 25 of the projectiles were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome system.

Some 115 Palestinians have died in a week of fighting, the majority of them civilians, including 27 children, hospital officials said. Three Israelis died last week when a rocket from Gaza struck their house.

Plans for an Israeli ground offensive, which is certain to escalate tensions across the region, were put on hold on Tuesday, as Israeli officials say they want to give diplomacy a chance to succeed. But Israel says it is prepared to send troops to Gaza to deal a serious blow to Hamas.

The US administration has warned Israel against pursuing a ground assault, but said the decision is essentially up to Israel. Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the US believes “Israel will make its own decisions about the military operations and the decisions that it undertakes."

“At the same time, we believe that Israel, like the United States, like other countries, would prefer to see their interests met diplomatically and peacefully,” Rhodes said. “It's in nobody's interest to see an escalation of the military conflict.”

As to the mediation efforts, Rhodes said, “There are a number of ideas that are in play,” but offered no further details. And he insisted the ramped up US involvement was “a matter of what's in everybody's best interests,” not a matter of “leverage,” according to the Associated Press.

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