Israel's fateful call: declare victory or push on?

Once Hamas tunnels are destroyed, Jewish state faces a crucial moment of decision.

A doctor treats a 3-day-old Palestinian baby in Khan Younis. She was delivered prematurely after her 24-year-old mother was killed by a missile strike.
A doctor treats a 3-day-old Palestinian baby in Khan Younis. She was delivered prematurely after her 24-year-old mother was killed by a missile strike.

Israel is approaching a fateful decision on what to do when it completes the stated initial goal of its ground offensive: locating and destroying Hamas cross-border tunnels.

Army chief of staff Major-General Benny Gantz told reporters yesterday that the military had completed most of the work of finding and destroying the tunnels, a statement that raises the question of where Israel will take the war in a few days when that is finished.

Watch: Gaza residents walk through rubble during truce

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Possibilities include finding new military goals, declaring victory and withdrawing troops from Gaza, or escalating to a campaign to militarily destroy Hamas. There is also a possibility of a ceasefire but the Israeli moment of truth approaches at a time when United States-brokered efforts for a comprehensive ceasefire seem to be foundering, with Israel and Hamas sticking to mutually exclusive conditions.

In developments yesterday:

The United Nations Security Council called for "an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire" at an emergency meeting. The council urged Israel and Hamas "to accept and fully implement the humanitarian ceasefire into the Eid [al-Fitr holiday] and beyond". It said this would allow for the delivery of urgently needed assistance.

Earlier, in a phone call, US President Barack Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the US was growing more concerned about the rising Palestinian death toll and the worsening humanitarian conditions in Gaza and pushed for an immediate ceasefire.

Watch: Gaza: Violence 'triggered by Hamas'

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Pope Francis appealed to both sides to urgently end the conflict for the sake of hundreds of children who he said were being killed and maimed. "Stop, please stop! I beg you with all my heart," he said at the Vatican. "I think of the children, who are robbed of the hope of a dignified life, of a future. Dead children, wounded children, mutilated children, orphans, children who, for toys, have the debris of war. Children who do not know how to smile."

New attacks were launched by Israel and Hamas yesterday despite going back and forth over proposals for another temporary halt to nearly three weeks of fighting.

With the war goals becoming fuzzier, Amos Yadlin, head of Israel's most influential think-tank, the Institute for National Strategic Studies, yesterday advocated the "weakening and even destruction" of the Islamist group that rules the coastal enclave. At the start of the war, that position was heard only on the far-right fringes and its advocacy by Yadlin, a former intelligence chief, and some ministers in Netanyahu's Likud Party, suggests it is becoming more mainstream.

The security Cabinet was convened yesterday to discuss the course of the war after it rejected at the weekend US Secretary of State John Kerry's proposals for a ceasefire for not taking into account Israeli demands such as completing the anti-tunnel effort and stripping Hamas of its rocket arsenal.

In addition to completing the tunnel operations, Israel wants Hamas "demilitarised" and does not want it to be able to claim a victory in the form of its demands being met.

Hamas is adhering to its demands that there can be no ceasefire without guarantees Israel and Egypt will lift the border strictures and that Israel will release Hamas leaders it rearrested in the West Bank. Netanyahu told NBC the unconditional ceasefire proposal of Egypt, rejected by Hamas, "is the only game in town".

Fragile truces easily broken

Truce failure: After initially rejecting an Israeli offer for a 24-hour truce, Hamas said late on Sunday that it had agreed to hold fire ahead of the Eid al-Fitr holiday. But as Israel's Cabinet met to discuss the war, rockets rained down on southern Israel and Israeli strikes could be heard in Gaza.

Holding out: Both sides are after bigger gains in the Gaza war. Hamas wants to break the seven-year blockade of Gaza and believes the only way to force serious negotiations on ending the closure is to keep fighting. Israel, which launched the war to halt Hamas rocket fire, wants more time to destroy Hamas' rockets and tunnels.

The toll: The 20-day war has killed more than 1030 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Israel has lost 43 soldiers, as well as two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.

Fighting: An Israeli airstrike killed one person in Gaza when it hit a vehicle carrying municipal workers on their way to fix water pipes, the Palestinian Red Crescent said. Police said Israeli tanks fired shells, one hitting an apartment building. Navy boats also resumed firing on Gaza's coast. The Israeli military said it hit 40 sites yesterday. Israeli airstrikes have destroyed hundreds of homes.

Rockets: In southern Israel, one person was injured and a house was damaged by a rocket launched from Gaza, Israeli police said. The military said more than 50 rockets were fired on Sunday. Militants have fired more than 2400 rockets at Israel so far.

School attack: The Israeli military acknowledged firing a mortar shell that it said unintentionally hit the courtyard of a UN school in Gaza last week, but said the yard was empty at the time and that the shell could not have killed anyone. Palestinian officials have said three Israeli tank shells hit the school in Beit Hanoun, killing 16 people and wounding scores. The UN aid agency that operates the schools called for a full investigation. More than 160,000 displaced Palestinians have sought shelter at dozens of UN schools.

- Independent, Telegraph Group Ltd, AP

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