Israel has rebuffed attempts to negotiate an end to the Gaza conflict amid signs that it may be moving towards unilaterally declaring a halt to fighting without an agreement that would involve concessions to Hamas.
The decision to spurn fresh talks in Cairo aimed at forging a ceasefire deal came as the Israeli army indicated that its ground operation in the north of Gaza was winding down. Military and political sources said the goal of “neutralising” cross-border tunnels was on the verge of being achieved.
Although heavy fighting continued around the southern towns of Rafah and Khan Younis, Saturday’s developments suggested Israel may have turned its back on a negotiated settlement to the 26-day conflict.
A Palestinian delegation, including Hamas representatives, was expected to arrive in the Egyptian capital on Saturday night for talks aimed at forging another truce. But an Israeli cabinet minister, Yuval Steinitz, said in a television interview that Israel would not be sending a team.
“We are currently not sending any representative to Cairo,” he said, saying Hamas had repeatedly violated ceasefire deals. “That leads us to the conclusion that with this organisation there is no point in speaking about an agreement or a ceasefire because we have tried it too many times.”
In an address on Israeli television on Saturday night, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned Hamas it would pay “an intolerable price” if it continued to fire rockets. He added that, once demolition of the tunnels was complete, “the military will prepare for continuing action in according to our security needs and only according to our security needs”. Officials interpreted that as meaning Israel would adopt an approach of “quiet in return for quiet”.
Meanwhile, the Israel Defence Forces told 70,000 residents of Beit Lahiya that they could return to their homes from 2pm on Saturday, while warning them of possible booby traps laid by Hamas. “The residents are advised to beware of explosive devices Hamas has spread across the area,” the IDF said in a statement. “The army has dealt with tunnels and launching pads and has cleaned the area, apart from booby traps,” a source said.
The IDF indicated it was close to completing its mission to destroy cross-border tunnels dug by militant groups for the purpose of launching attacks inside Israel. It said four tunnels had been destroyed. A source told Haaretz that the mission could be complete within 48 hours and Israeli TV reported some troops being withdrawn from Gaza.
Israel renewed its intensive bombardment of Gaza following Friday’s dramatic breakdown after less than two hours of a ceasefire brokered by the US and the UN. The IDF said that it had hit more than 200 targets in 24 hours of resumed activity, including the Hamas-affiliated Islamic University in Gaza City.
Reports from Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip and close to where Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin was thought to have been abducted on Friday, indicated heavy civilian casualties from Israeli bombardment of the area as troops continued to clash with Hamas fighters. Around 100 people were killed and hundreds more were injured after fighting resumed. On Saturday night the death toll of Palestinians exceeded 1,650 and Israel confirmed that it had lost 63 soldiers and three civilians, its highest death toll since the 2006 Lebanon war. Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, said his government has evidence that almost half of Palestinians killed were combatants. Gazan human rights groups say at least 80% of the Palestinians killed have been civilians.
Hamas denied it was holding Goldin captive, saying it had lost contact with a unit that carried out an operation in which two soldiers were killed and the 23-year-old Goldin was believed to have been abducted. It said its militants and the Israeli soldier were presumed killed in a subsequent Israeli air strike.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official in Gaza City, said: “We in Hamas have no information about any soldiers. We are learning about this from the Israeli media. But this does not mean we regret the policy of kidnapping soldiers who … we want to kidnap to release our prisoners in Israeli jails.”
Meanwhile, a row broke out between David Cameron and Ed Miliband on Saturday night after the Labour leader described the British prime minister’s “silence” on Israel’s incursion into Gaza as inexplicable. Miliband said that Britain must take a “leading role” in pressuring both sides to end the violence, and described Israel’s killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinians as unjustifiable.
He said: “David Cameron should be playing a leading role in these efforts to secure peace. He is right to say that Hamas is an appalling, terrorist organisation. Its wholly unjustified rocket attacks on Israeli citizens, as well as the building of tunnels for terrorist purposes, show the organisation’s murderous intent and practice towards Israel and its citizens.
“But the prime minister is wrong not to have opposed Israel’s incursion into Gaza. And his silence on the killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians caused by Israel’s military action will be inexplicable to people.
“I am a supporter of Israel and I believe in Israel’s right to self-defence. But its military actions in the past two weeks have been wrong and unjustifiable.”
Downing Street responded with a statement accusing Miliband of “playing politics” over the war. A No 10 spokesman said: “The PM has been clear that both sides in the Gaza conflict need to observe a ceasefire. We are shocked that Ed Miliband would seek to misrepresent that position and play politics with such a serious issue.”