Cautious optimism was growing that a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza could soon put a halt to days of bloody conflict, but fresh airstrikes and rocket fire Thursday signaled that the violence wasn’t over yet.
Hamas officials told CNN Wednesday that a halt to the clashes could be “imminent, possibly within 24 hours,” as the White House and Europe dialed up pressure on both sides to end the fighting. Israel, however, has not commented on the possibility of a ceasefire deal.
US President Joe Biden has ramped up pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to end the fighting with Hamas, giving the Israeli leader a deadline in a call on Wednesday for “a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.”
European leaders were also stepping up their push to put an end to the turmoil.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas flew to Israel on Thursday for talks with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, backing international efforts for a ceasefire and calling for violence to end as soon as possible, though his remarks that “Israel must defend itself against Hamas’ rocket terror” prompted a rebuke from the Palestinian militant group.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel made similar remarks in a phone call with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, with both supporting a ceasefire, according to her spokesman Steffen Seibert.
“The Chancellor emphasized Israel’s right of self-defense against the missile strikes form the Gaza-Strip,” he said.
France has drafted a UN Security Council resolution seeking a cessation in hostilities and humanitarian access to Gaza, but it has been blocked by the United States, which says it could undermine the Biden administration’s efforts to de-escalate.
The diplomatic push comes amid mounting concerns over the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza, where 230 people, including more than 60 children, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there.
At least 12 people in Israel, including two children, have been killed by Palestinian militant fire from Gaza during the current round of violence.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) says its staff were being denied permission to cross from Israel into Gaza.
Ely Sok, MSF Head of Mission in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said that “humanitarian needs are mounting, with more than 1,400 people injured and tens of thousands of people displaced.”
Sok added in a statement that the health system in Gaza was “out of key materials to treat the injured such as blood bags.”
“We still don’t know when our team will be able to cross into Gaza to join our colleagues who are already there. The crossing points need to be reopened immediately and safe passage must be facilitated for humanitarian staff and supplies to avert a greater catastrophe,” he said.
Israel stopped shipments entering Gaza after the Erez crossing was attacked with mortars on Tuesday. Those attacks were claimed by the military wing of Islamic Jihad.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres added his voice to calls for an immediate ceasefire in a impassioned speech in New York.
“If there is a hell on Earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza today,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks.
He said he intended to launch a full humanitarian appeal for funding for the people of Gaza and was working to free up emergency funds.
“Access for humanitarian goods is paramount. Attacks by militant groups on areas surrounding crossing points are unacceptable,” he said.
“Even wars have rules. First and foremost, civilians must be protected.”
Israel on Thursday saw its longest lull in rocket fire from Gaza — more than eight hours — since the conflict broke out on May 10. But by Thursday morning, sirens were sounding again in southern Israel, warning of an incoming barrage of rockets.
Meanwhile, Israeli warplanes continued to pound targets in Gaza overnight. Speaking after visiting an Israel Defense Forces command center on Wednesday, Netanyahu said he was “determined to continue this operation until its objective is achieved: to restore quiet and security to you, citizens of Israel.”
Netanyahu has not clarified whether Israel would support a ceasefire, nor has he commented on Biden’s calls for one. In a tweet after his conversation with Biden on Wednesday, he said: “I especially appreciate the support of our friend @POTUS Joe Biden, for the State of Israel’s right to self-defense.”
Biden has grown increasingly eager for the fighting to end, according to officials, but has been wary of publicly applying pressure on Netanyahu, believing the tactic would backfire. But Netanyahu’s comments that he plans to continue the operation in Gaza until Hamas targets are taken out have strained US patience, according to officials. Biden made clear to Netanyahu on the call that international pressure would increase if the military campaign continues.
Still, Hamas officials tell CNN that ceasefire agreement will most likely be reached within days. A Hamas leader on Wednesday said there was a “positive atmosphere” around the talks to reach an agreement with Israel, “thanks to the support of our Egyptian and Qatari brothers,” who proposed different solutions.