Israel on Wednesday accepted a UN proposal for a five-hour unilateral humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow for relief aid into Gaza, less than two days after it accepted a more comprehensive cease-fire proposal that was answered by continuous rocket attacks from Gaza.
Hamas followed suit and also agreed to the humanitarian pause in the fighting around midnight on Wednesday.
Early Thursday morning the Iron Dome rocket defense system intercepted two rockets over Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi. Three rockets fell in open area in Kiryat Malachi, and the Eshkol and Ashkelon Coast regional councils on Thursday morning.
UN Middle East envoy Robert Serry turned to Maj.-Gen. Yoav “Poly” Mordechai – Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories – with the request. A UN spokesman said if Israel agreed, Serry would call on “groups in Gaza to respect the pause.”
IDF sources said the lull in the fighting would go into effect on Thursday at 10 a.m.
The development came as Israel continued to delay a much discussed ground incursion into the Gaza Strip so it could gauge the direction intensive efforts in Cairo and elsewhere were taking to resuscitate the cease-fire plan Hamas rejected on Tuesday.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held talks in Cairo on Wednesday, as did Quartet envoy Tony Blair, in an effort to come up with a package that would be acceptable to both sides.
Abbas met with Hamas official Musa Abu Marzouk, and Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, and even Tunisia and France were reportedly involved in efforts to quell the violence.
Even as these efforts were under way, Israel sent a message that a ground operation was very much on the table, approving the mobilization of another 8,000 reservists to join the 48,000 who have already been called up since the start of Operation Protective Edge.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – in conversations on Tuesday with the mayors of Ashkelon, Ashdod and Rishon Lezion – said Israel would “use as much force as necessary to restore the quiet.”
In addition, during a public statement before a meeting with visiting Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, Netanyahu said that at this point Hamas had closed the door on diplomacy, and Israel was intent on returning fire with more intensive fire.
“We’ve been trying to find a solution to this problem,” he said, stressing that Israel accepted on Tuesday the Egyptian-brokered plan that was endorsed by UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon and the Arab League.
“Israel accepted the cease-fire, Hamas rejected it,” the prime minister said. “We held our fire for six hours, and during that time Hamas continued to barrage our cities with rockets. Hamas thus shut the door to a diplomatic solution and it therefore bears the sole responsibility for the continuation of the violence. It’s responsible for the civilian deaths, the innocent deaths of Palestinians that it uses as human shields, and it’s responsible for the deaths of Israeli civilians and the terror rocketing of Israeli civilians.”
As Hamas was reportedly setting its conditions for a cease-fire – the release of the Hamas terrorists freed in the Gilad Schalit deal and rearrested last month, as well as the opening of Gaza’s border crossings – Netanyahu made clear what he expected.
“I think that the most important thing vis-à-vis Gaza is to ensure that Gaza is demilitarized from rockets and from the attack tunnels that Hamas is building into Israel,” he said. “This is an important part of the long-term solution, but in the immediate moment, Israel has to take the actions to defend its citizens as any normal country would against terrorists who are committing double war crimes of targeting civilians and hiding behind civilians.”
Netanyahu also raised the demilitarization of Gaza during a meeting with visiting Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende. “The international community needs to support the demilitarizing of Gaza from its rockets and tunnels,” the prime minister said.
Diplomatic officials, meanwhile, dismissed reports that Hamas rejected the Egyptian cease-fire because it was kept out of the loop by the Egyptians and presented with a fait accompli.
The official said that there were various theories as to why Hamas rejected the offer, including that it is a “fanatical organization” that simply wants to continue the conflict; that it cannot end the violence without first inflicting a heavy blow on Israel; or that it reflects a dysfunctionality inside the organization.
Haaretz reported that Netanyahu spoke with Egyptian President Fatah al-Sisi on Saturday, before Tuesday’s aborted ceasefire.
This would be the second conversation the two men had since Netanyahu called the Egyptian leader last month to congratulate him on his election victory.
Yaakov Lappin and Yasser Okbi contributed to this report.