JERUSALEM – As attempts to extend a pause in fighting in the Gaza Strip collapsed on Sunday, President Obama pressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree to an immediate cease-fire, calling it a “strategic imperative,” the White House said.
The intervention by Obama came after the United Nations failed to get Israel and Hamas to extend a “humanitarian pause” in combat, and Israeli forces resumed their bombardments in response to renewed rocket and mortar fire from Gaza.
In a phone call with Netanyahu, Obama “made clear the strategic imperative of instituting an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire that ends hostilities now and leads to a permanent cessation of hostilities based on the November 2012 ceasefire agreement,” according to a White House statement.
The 2012 agreement ended a previous round of conflict between Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas.
Israel had declared a 24-hour cease-fire at midnight Saturday, but said it resumed attacks because of violations by Hamas.
The Islamist group declared its own 24-hour cease-fire Sunday, citing the hardships of Palestinian civilians and the approaching Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, but Israel rejected it.
Diplomatic contacts to arrange a broader seven-day cease-fire leading to negotiations on a durable truce appeared to be mired in disagreements over the terms. There were signs of dissatisfaction in Israel with the mediation efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
The war so far has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 6,000, according to Gaza health officials. The U.N. said that three-quarters of the dead in Gaza are civilians, including more than 200 children. About 200,000 Palestinians have been displaced by the fighting, and most are sheltered in U.N. schools.
Two Israeli civilians and a Thai laborer have been killed in rocket strikes on Israel, and 43 Israeli soldiers have been killed in ground combat.
The absence of a trusted mediator has hobbled diplomatic efforts to halt the Israeli offensive, which began July 8 with bombardments from land, sea and air, followed 10 days later by a ground push into Gaza.
The diplomacy has also been complicated by regional tensions between Egypt and the Palestinian Authority on the one side, and Hamas and its allies, Turkey and Qatar, on the other. Hamas rejected an initial cease-fire proposal put forward by Egypt, reflecting its distrust of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who is hostile to the Islamist group and its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Kerry’s attempts to broker a deal have foundered over Israeli dissatisfaction with the terms of his latest proposal for a seven-day cease-fire. Israel’s Cabinet unanimously rejected the plan on Friday, which officials described as heavily weighted in favor of Hamas demands, without taking adequate account of Israeli security concerns.
A leaked text of the draft proposal was published Sunday by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The plan calls for a seven-day “humanitarian cease-fire” followed by negotiations in Cairo within 48 hours to reach “a sustainable cease-fire and enduring solution to the crisis in Gaza.”
Topics to be discussed would include opening Gaza border crossings kept shut by Egypt and Israel for the passage of people and goods, transferring funds for salaries of Hamas government employees who have gone unpaid since the formation in June of a Palestinian unity government with the mainstream Fatah faction, and “all security issues.”
In a lengthy interview last week with the BBC, Khaled Mashal, the Qatar-based political leader of Hamas, spelled out the group’s main demand, to lift border closings on the Gaza Strip that have created a stranglehold on the local economy.
“Gaza is part of the Palestinian land,” he said. “We have 1.8 million people. They need to live without a blockade. We want an airport and a port. We want to open up to the world. We don’t want to be controlled by a group of crossings that make Gaza the biggest prison in history.”
Also Sunday, the Israeli army published the results of its investigation into an incident last Thursday in which 16 Palestinians were reported killed in an apparent strike on a U.N. school in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, where people who had fled their homes were taking shelter.
The inquiry found that during exchanges of fire with militants, who launched anti-tank missiles at troops from areas near the school, Israeli forces responded with mortar fire. An errant shell hit the school courtyard, but it was empty at the time. The army circulated video footage taken from a drone showing a shell impact in an empty yard of a compound said to be the school.
“It is extremely unlikely that anybody was killed as a result of this mortar,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman.
Lerner said that the casualties may have been brought to the school compound after they were either caught in crossfire nearby or hit by rockets and mortar rounds launched towards Israel that the army identified as falling short.
The army findings contradict accounts by witnesses and people wounded in the incident, who said that shells had landed in the school courtyard as people were gathered there for possible evacuation.