Israel on Wednesday intensified air attacks on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip following a failed Egyptian cease-fire effort, targeting the homes of four senior leaders of the Islamic armed group and ordering tens of thousands of residents to evacuate border areas.
The Palestinian death toll in nine days of fighting rose to 204, with some 1,450 wounded, Palestinian health officials said. On the Israeli side, one man was killed and several people were wounded since the fighting erupted on July 8.
The website of the Gaza Interior Ministry said Israel warplanes carried out dozens of air strikes before dawn Wednesday, targeting 30 houses, including those of senior Hamas leaders Mahmoud Zahar, Jamila Shanti, Fathi Hamas and Ismail Ashkar.
Zahar was a key figure in Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, while the other three were members of the Palestinian parliament elected in 2006. Many Hamas leaders have gone into hiding since the beginning of the Israeli offensive.
Alongside the air strikes, Israel also ordered tens of thousands of residents of the northern town of Beit Lahiya and the Zeitoun and Shijaiyah neighborhoods of Gaza City, all near the border with Israel, to evacuate their homes by 8 a.m. Wednesday. The warnings were delivered in automated phone calls, text messages and leaflets dropped from planes.
The Israeli military said in its message that large numbers of rockets were launched from these areas and that Israel plans to bomb these locations. "Whoever disregards these instructions and fails to evacuate immediately, endangers their own lives, as well as those of their families," the message said.
A proposed Gaza cease-fire failed Tuesday just hours after it was due to go into effect. Brokered by Egypt, the proposed de-escalation of violence was set for 9 a.m. local time (2 a.m. ET). Israel announced shortly before that it would cease missile launches. It previously rejected the idea of a truce but “decided to accept the Egyptian initiative for a cease-fire,” Ofir Gendelman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman for Arab media, said via Twitter.
But Hamas said it had not been consulted and would reject any agreement if certain conditions were not met, including Israel’s ending its seven-year-long siege of Gaza. Hamas' armed wing did not offer an official position on the Egyptian plan, and rockets from Gaza continued to be fired into Israel after the cease-fire was due to commence.
As a result, just hours into the cease-fire Israel announced it would resume with its offensive. Tuesday’s rocket exchange saw the first Israeli casualty of the conflict. Described as a volunteer handing out food to soldiers, the individual suffered grave wounds during a shell attack in Erez, where there is a main border crossing between Gaza and Israel.
“Hamas has fired 47 rockets since we suspended our strikes in Gaza at 9 a.m. As a result, we have resumed our operation against Hamas,” the Israel Defense Forces tweeted shortly after 3 p.m. local time.
The resumption was not unexpected. An Israeli official earlier told Al Jazeera, “If Hamas rejects these proposals, Israel will continue the operation and intensify it,” adding that Hamas’ rejection of the truce would give Israel enhanced legitimacy to continue the operation and reduce Hamas’ standing with the international community and with the Arab world.
Egypt’s plan had been to usher in a truce in the fighting that would then lead to the end of hostilities within 12 hours.
Israel’s latest offensive in the Gaza Strip has left at least 192 Palestinians dead and over 1,000 wounded. About three-quarters of the dead are civilians, the United Nations has estimated, with at least 30 of them children. Overnight Israeli strikes hit 25 sites in Gaza, and Palestinian medical officials said a 63-year-old man and a 52-year-old woman were killed.
Hamas said it had not been consulted about the cease-fire deal and has not given a formal response. “To make a cease-fire before meeting our conditions is rejected,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
He wrote in a Facebook post, “The resistance will continue until we achieve all the goals of our people, and any cease-fire from one side will not be respected after the massacres committed by the Israelis against our people. The humanitarian situation is miserable,” adding that resistance is a legitimate right for occupied peoples.
Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, deputy chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, said via Twitter, “We are still in consultations. There is no official Hamas reaction yet in regards to the Egyptian initiative.”
Hamas said it could not agree to any deal that did not address its conditions, which include Israel’s ending its assaults and siege of the occupied territory and abiding by the conditions of the last truce, in 2012, which Hamas said Israel broke.
Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing, echoed the bureau in a separate statement, saying it had not been consulted “on the initiative of the alleged cease-fire between the resistance and the Zionist enemy.”
“If what has been circulated is true, this initiative means kneeling and submissiveness, and so we completely refuse it, and to us, it’s not worth the ink used in writing it,” the Al-Qassam said, according to Palestinian news website Maan News, describing the proposal as a “surrender.”
Although Hamas’ rockets have resulted in one death in Israel, disrupted daily life and sent people running to bomb shelters, senior Israeli defense official and Cairo envoy Amos Gilad said it was Hamas that has been weakened.
Israel has called up nearly 40,000 reservists and threatened an incursion into Gaza. Nearly 20,000 Gazans fled their homes over the weekend after Israel said a massive operation was going to be carried out in civilian areas in the north. Thousands of people have sought shelter in United Nations schools farther south.
Tensions increased between Israel and the Palestinians soon after Fatah and Hamas signed an agreement to form a unity government during the last, failed round of peace talks.
Though Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group, Western powers, including the United States, said they continue to support the unity government.
On June 12, three Israeli teenagers went missing and were later killed in the West Bank. Israel blames Hamas but has not provided evidence to support that allegation, which the group denies. Israel then launched a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting hundreds and killing at least six Palestinians in the process.
After the three Israeli boys’ bodies were found near Hebron, calls for revenge circulated in far-right Israeli groups, and a 15-year-old Palestinian was soon abducted and burned alive in what suspects who confessed to the crime said was a nationalistically motivated murder. At the boy’s funeral in Shuafat in Jerusalem, his teenage cousin, a U.S. citizen, was brutally beaten by masked Israeli security forces and arrested, prompting outrage.
Sporadic rocket attacks by Hamas in retaliation for the West Bank crackdown were met with Israeli airstrikes, which intensified until Operation Protective Edge was launched on the besieged territory.
With wire services