JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that more work was needed to reach a deal between Israel and Hamas for a seven-day truce in the Gaza war. Israel’s defense minister warned that the military may soon broaden its ground operation “significantly.”
The tough statement by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, coupled with Kerry’s inability to broker even a temporary cease-fire after a week of shuttling around the region, signaled the fighting is likely to drag on, with more than 820 Palestinians and 38 people in Israel killed so far.
In a statement issued shortly after Kerry spoke at a press conference in Cairo, Yaalon’s office quoted him telling troops in the field that “you need to be ready for the possibility that very soon we will instruct the military to significantly broaden the ground operation in Gaza.”
“Hamas is paying a very heavy price and will pay an even heavier price,” Yaalon said. “At the end of the operation, Hamas will have to think very hard if it is worth it to taunt us in the future.”
Israel has said a key objective of its ground operation is to destroy Hamas military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border – and Israeli media have said the military wants more time to complete the mission.
Of 31 discovered so far, about half have been destroyed. The tunnels, used by Hamas in the past to sneak into Israel, are seen as a strategic threat against Israel.
For days, Kerry has been moving between the Egyptian capital, the West Bank and Jerusalem and talking to officials from Qatar, which is in contact with Hamas. But the most Kerry seemed to have won so far was a willingness from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to consider a far less ambitious 12-hour halt in fighting, proposed by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.
Netanyahu, Kerry said, “has indicated his willingness to do that as a good faith down payment to move forward.”
Still, Kerry said that the parties are closer than ever to an agreement for a seven-day “humanitarian” truce to start with the Muslim Eid holiday on Monday, ending the holy month of Ramadan.
Speaking alongside the U.N. secretary-general and the Egyptian foreign minister, Kerry insisted that there was a general agreement on the “concept” of a truce but that both sides had concerns over details of carrying it out.
“Gaps have been significantly narrowed,” he said. “It can be achieved, if we work through some of the issues that are important for the parties.”
Gaza fighting continued alongside the truce efforts. Israeli airstrikes hit more than 80 sites in Gaza, while militants in the tiny Mediterranean strip fired 50 rockets at Israel, the army said. Among the sites hit in Gaza were 30 homes, including that of a leader of the Islamic Jihad group who was killed along with his sons, Palestinian officials said.
And unrest sparked by the conflict intensified in the West Bank, where five Palestinians were killed during protests against the Israeli operation in Gaza.
The U.S. top diplomat said the goal of halting fighting for seven days was to provide time to work out further talks to address each side’s demands. He said some “terminology” on a truce’s framework still needed work.
Hamas demands the release of Palestinian prisoners in addition to an end to the 7-year-old border blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after the group seized Gaza from the Western-backed government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Israeli TV reports said Israel’s Security Cabinet unanimously rejected Kerry’s proposal in its current form, mainly because it would mean Israel has to cut short the effort to destroy tunnels. But Kerry said he had not submitted a formal proposal to Israel for the Cabinet to vote on.
Israeli government officials were not immediately available for comment.
The worst round of cross-border fighting in more than five years has killed 828 Palestinians and wounded more than 5,200, according to Palestinian health officials. The U.N. says civilians make up three-fourths of the dead and a majority of the wounded.
In Israel, 38 people have been killed since July 8, including 35 soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.
The army announced on Friday that an Israeli soldier whom Hamas had claimed to have captured earlier this week had in fact died in battle on that day. The declaration lifts fears of a soldier in Hamas custody – one of Israel’s worst-case scenarios in any fight with the militants.
The army said it determined that Sgt. Oron Shaul was killed among seven soldiers killed in a vehicle that was hit by an anti-tank missile in Gaza on Sunday. The others in the vehicle were confirmed dead soon after the battle ended but Shaul’s remains were not immediately identified. Shaul is among the count of 35 soldiers killed in the fighting.
As the Gaza fighting drags on, the West Bank is becoming increasingly restive.
Protests erupted Friday in the northern village of Hawara, near the city of Nablus, and the southern village of Beit Omar, near the city of Hebron. Palestinian hospital officials said three Palestinians were killed in Beit Omar and two in Hawara.
The mayor of Hawara, Mouin Idmeidi, said he and hundreds of others from the village participated in a protest after emerging from a local mosque after Friday prayers.
Hawara is located along a main north-south thoroughfare that is also used by Israeli motorists. The mayor said an Israeli motorist slowed down as he passed the march and fired at the group.
The mayor said four people were wounded and that one of them, a 19-year-old, died at Rafidiyeh Hospital in Nablus of his injuries.
After the shooting, clashes erupted between Palestinians and Israeli troops who opened fire, killing a 22-year-old from Hawara, the mayor said.
Rafidiyeh hospital confirmed the deaths.
An Israeli police spokesman, Mickey Rosenfeld, said paramilitary border police opened fire to disperse violent protests at Hawara, and that masked Palestinians threw firebombs. He said he was unaware of a shooting involving an Israeli civilian.
In Beit Omar, clashes erupted between Israeli forces and Palestinian stone-throwers. Hebron hospital officials said three Palestinians were killed.
The Israeli military said it was looking into the reports.
On Thursday, thousands of Palestinians clashes with Israeli forces at a West Bank checkpoint and in East Jerusalem, the largest protests in those areas in several years.