- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

UPDATED:

The United States late Saturday blocked approval of a U.N. Security Council statement calling for an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel and expressing concern at the escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. deputy ambassador Alejandro Wolff said the United States saw no prospect of Hamas abiding by last week’s council call for an immediate end to the violence. Therefore, he said, a new statement at this time “would not be adhered to and would have no underpinning for success, would not do credit to the council.”

France’s U.N. Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert, the current council president, announced that there was no agreement among members on a statement. But he said there were “strong convergences” among the 15 members to express serious concern about the deteriorating situation in Gaza and the need for “an immediate, permanent and fully respected cease-fire.”

See related story: Israel bisects Gaza, surrounds biggest city

Arab nations demanded that the council adopt a statement calling for an immediate cease-fire following Israel’s launch of a ground offensive in Gaza earlier Saturday, a view echoed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Libya’s U.N. Ambassador Giadalla Ettalhi, the only Arab member of the council, said the United States objected to “any outcome” during the closed council discussions on the proposed statement.

He said efforts were made to compromise and agree on a weaker press statement but there was no consensus, the AP reported.

• • •

Israel escalated its offensive against Hamas in a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip on Saturday evening, sending columns of soldiers and armor with air cover into the Palestinian enclave for an operation the Israeli defense minister said “will not be easy and will not be short.”

Until Saturday, Israel had limited its eight-day onslaught to air attacks against hundreds of Hamas targets. Dispatching infantry, tank and combat-engineer forces into Gaza’s densely packed neighborhoods to battle Hamas’ soldiers ratchets up the risk of casualties on both sides.

The second stage of the offensive “is necessary to complete the mission,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

“The goal is to stop the hostile action from Gaza against Israeli civilians,” he said. “The ground-force operation involves the endangerment of the lives of the fighters.”

Three years after Israel pulled its last soldiers out of the coastal strip of 1.5 million, Mr. Barak told the Israeli public that the return to Gaza would be a difficult operation. At the same time, Israel’s government said it had approved the call-up of thousands of combat reservists as reinforcements for the invasion.

An Israeli military spokesman said the goal of the invasion would be to take over the launching grounds of the Katyusha missiles, which have hit Israeli cities that are nearly 30 miles away from the Gaza Strip border.

Palestinian witnesses living in the northern and eastern parts of the Gaza Strip said they could hear the engines of the Israeli tanks and other armored vehicles moving across the border. Hamas’ Izz el-Deen al-Qassam military wing predicted that the Israeli soldiers would fall prey to the “trap” laid by the Islamic militants.

“The Zionist enemy will be surprised and will regret carrying out such an operation at such a heavy price,” the organization said. “Our militants are waiting patiently to confront the soldiers face to face.”

In the first week of Israel’s military action against Hamas, more than 460 Palestinians were killed, approximately a quarter of whom were civilians, according to the United Nations. About 2,000 were reported injured.

Hamas has responded by sending hundreds of rockets into southern Israel that have killed four Israelis.

In the first hours of the ground offensive, Israel Radio reported that Israeli forces had engaged Hamas militants in gunbattles and killed “dozens” of Palestinians. A statement from an Israeli army spokesman said the Israeli navy had set up a blockade 20 nautical miles from the Gaza Strip.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority condemned the Israeli invasion and called for the intervention of the United Nations Security Council. “The Israeli aggression on Gaza will have grave consequences for the region,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, according to Agence France-Presse.

Riyad Mansour, the permanent Palestinian observer to the United Nations, told reporters it was the council’s responsibility “to bring Israel into compliance and to stop this aggression immediately.”

“Israel cannot continue to behave as a state above international law. This is the law of the jungle,” he said.

The U.N. Security Council ended its meeting late Saturday without reaching an agreement on a statement on the situation in the Gaza Strip, the French ambassador said.

The ambassador, Jean-Maurice Ripert, who presides in the council this month, said members of the body could not agree on a statement that would call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, AFP reported.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon earlier Saturday had urged an immediate end to Israel’s ground offensive in the Gaza Strip, his press office said just before the Security Council session.

Mr. Ban “called for an immediate end to the ground operation, and asked that Israel do all possible to ensure the protection of civilians and that humanitarian assistance is able to reach those in need,” his office said in a statement.

The secretary-general spoke earlier in the day with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and “conveyed his extreme concern and disappointment,” the statement said.

The ground attack comes on the eve of two European efforts to mediate a cease-fire. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg is planning to visit Israel on Sunday, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy is slated to arrive Monday.

On Saturday, the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, called the ground invasion a “defensive, not offensive” operation. France, which held the presidency until the end of 2008, condemned the invasion.

On Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States was pursuing an immediate cease-fire, though she emphasized that the truce should be “durable” and one that prevents “a reestablishment of the status quo ante, where Hamas could launch rockets.”

Wary of being drawn back into a prolonged occupation of the Gaza Strip, Israel had resisted a broad ground invasion - such as the one launched Saturday - since Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007. Israel instead had limited its response to the Hamas rocket fire to brief incursions into the Gaza Strip.

The current round of fighting comes after a six-month cease-fire between Israel and Hamas expired Dec. 19.

Israel has said its goal is to bring an end to the rocket fire, but last week resisted international efforts to put into place a 48-hour cease-fire that would have given a chance for diplomacy to avoid further fighting.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel had broader objectives than just trying to stop Gaza militants from firing rockets into the country’s south. She told an Israeli television station that toppling Hamas was “a strategic Israeli objective,” but she said that more than one military offensive might be needed to achieve Israel’s aims.

“I cannot accept a state controlled by a terror organization in Gaza,” Mrs. Livni said.

For Israel, the offensive is an effort to level a heavy blow to the Islamic militants and to remake its deterrence doctrine with Hamas after years of tolerating rocket fire on cities near the border.

The challenge for Israeli military planners is how to create an impression of victory even though the goals are neither to topple Hamas, nor reoccupy Gaza. A ground invasion, some analysts noted, brings the fight into Hamas’ home territory, where their forces can inflict maximum damage to Israeli troops.

The fighting has stirred up frequent comparisons to Israel’s inconclusive month-long battle with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006.

Hamas is also thought to seek a return to a cease-fire agreement. However, like Israel, it would like to change the terms of the truce. It wants to require the opening of the commercial crossings, whose closure has slowly closed the impoverished strip to commercial and industrial goods.

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