As the number of Palestinian civilians killed in Israeli air strikes increased from Sunday to Monday, so did international pressure on Jerusalem to restrain its Gaza offensive and intensify efforts to find a ceasefire.
While Israeli government officials say the international community generally recognizes that Hamas is responsible for the current crisis and supports Israel’s right to defend herself, world leaders and the international press are growing increasingly impatient, with Western leaders heading to Israel to encourage a ceasefire and governments calling on Jerusalem to refrain from escalating the situation.
By midday Monday, the Palestinian death toll had climbed up to 84, and the IDF continued to prepare for a ground operation in Gaza. According to unconfirmed reports, about half the casualties were civilians, many of them women and children. The death toll in Israel was three, with dozens of people injured; Hamas rocket fire into Israel continued, with a direct hit on an (empty) Ashkelon school, and much of the south confined to safe areas.
“I am deeply saddened by the reported deaths of more than 10 members of the Dalu family, including women and children, and additional Palestinian civilians killed as a result of the ongoing violence in the Gaza strip,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on Sunday in New York, as he headed to the Middle East.
Ban also said he was “alarmed by the continuing firing of rockets against Israeli towns.”
“This must stop,” he said, urging both parties to cooperate with Egyptian-led efforts to reach an immediate ceasefire. “Any further escalation will inevitably increase the suffering of the affected civilian populations and must be avoided.”
The EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called for “a solution that brings security to the region” and said she was “very concerned for the rising death toll on both sides… I have always been and remain in contact with the Israeli Prime Minister, with the Arab League and with the Arab Countries. It is necessary to find a long-term solution for Gaza: I was there three times; we must find a way of preventing rocket strikes and guarantee peace and security to the people in that area.”
The IDF is currently investigating the deaths of members of the Dalu family, which might have been the result of a mistake during an attempt to kill Hamas’s rocket chief Yihya Abiya on Sunday. No official statement had been released as of Monday noon.
A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday said that Beijing is “extremely concerned about Israel’s continued large-scale military operations towards the Gaza Strip,” according to Reuters. “We condemn the over-use of force causing deaths and injuries amongst innocent ordinary people,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a daily news briefing.
“We strongly urge relevant parties, especially Israel, to maintain maximum restraint and ceasefire as soon as possible, to avoid any actions which may exacerbate the situation or raise tensions,” she said.
A spokesperson of the Indian Foreign Ministry made similar statements, saying the government was “deeply concerned at the steep escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine.”
But Israeli officials insisted that such statements do not constitute real pressure on Israel to change its course.
“It’s not that they are sending someone over to intervene, or are calling for an urgent meeting of the Security Council, or suggesting anything concrete,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel. “They just issued statements. These are unpleasant statements that are certainly disappointing, given the overall good relations we have with China and India. In light of our good strategic and cultural cooperation, you’d expect also a change of tone in statements on foreign policy. But there’s no pressure.”
Israel has also come under fire by some critics for comments made by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who said that Operation Pillar of Defense’s goal is “to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” During a television interview on Sunday, the Shas political leader said that Israel did not seek to harm innocent bystanders but that the offensive should “wreak havoc and heavy destruction” on terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.
“If Eli Yishai wanted to contribute to Israel’s hasbara (public diplomacy) efforts, he has done the exact opposite,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel. The minister’s statements do not only have a “dismal impact on Israel’s good image in the world” but on the way Israelis themselves see their government, Palmor added.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was expected to arrive in Israel on Monday, to meet with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and President Shimon Peres. He is set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leaders on Tuesday. Westerwelle so far been supportive of Israel’s operation but is also expected to urge Israel for restraint and to further efforts to achieve a ceasefire.
“It is obvious that Israel has the right to confront the violence of Hamas rockets and to protect its people. Israel’s government is acting in order to protect its citizens. The trigger of this spiral of violence are Hamas’s rockets,” Westerwelle wrote Sunday in an op-ed in Bild, Germany’s largest daily. “But what’s also obvious is that the situation is extremely dangerous. The entire region risks to be drawn into an escalation. Everyone needs to be aware of their responsibility.”
Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair met with Peres on Monday.
On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius met with Netanyahu, Peres, Liberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, urging both sides to end the hostilities.
France is interested in “preventing a war in the long run, and bringing about a ceasefire in the short run,” Fabius said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was one of the first Western leaders to back Operation Pillar of Defense, on Sunday advised Israel against sending ground troops into Gaza, saying such a move would protract the conflict and erode international support for Israel.
“It’s much more difficult to restrict and avoid civilian casualties during a ground invasion and a large ground operation would threaten to prolong the conflict,” Hague told Sky News. “A ground invasion is much more difficult for the international community to sympathize with or support – including the United Kingdom.”
US President Barack Obama likewise said that it would be “preferable” if a solution to the conflict could be found “without a ramping-up of military activity in Gaza.” At a press conference in Bangkok, he said he had told Arab leaders that Israel has every right not have missiles fired into its territory. “If that can be accomplished without a ramping-up of military activity in Gaza, that’s preferable; that’s not just preferable for the people of Gaza, it’s also preferable for Israelis – because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they’re much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded,” he said.
Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon rejected statements by foreign leaders advising Israel against launching a ground operation into Gaza, saying that Jerusalem would not determine how to best defend citizens’ lives based on the opinion of foreign leaders.
“We expect our allies to support us [when we] use all tools available in order to defend our people. To say the least, we don’t like these kinds of reservations,” Ya’alon told foreign reporters on Sunday in Jerusalem. “Regarding a ground operation, we feel like we should have the freedom of operation in order to be able to defend our country without any reservations. But we don’t think we are under pressure.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel on Monday morning, a government official said that there were no signs Western support for Operation Pillar of Defense was waning in the wake of news of Palestinian casualties.
Western media outlets, however, highlighted the deaths and destruction in Gaza. While in the initial phase of Israel’s offensive, coverage largely seemed balanced and keen on portraying both sides of the conflict, Monday’s papers mainly focused on Palestinian casualties.
The lead story on the front page of The International Herald Tribune, for example, was headlined “Heavy civilian toll from Israeli strikes.”
The strike that apparently killed the Dalu family in Gaza City’s Sheikh-Redwan neighborhood was widely reported.
“In the Israeli strike on Sunday morning, it took emergency workers and a Caterpillar digger more than an hour to reveal the extent of the devastation under the two-story home of Jamal Dalu, a shop owner,” The New York Times reported. “Mr. Dalu was at a neighbor’s when the blast wiped out nearly his entire family: His sister, wife, two daughters, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren ages 2 to 6 all perished under the rubble, along with two neighbors, an 18-year-old and his grandmother.”
The French Le Monde newspaper also focused on the Palestinian casualties.
“Since the Israeli offensive ‘Pillar of Defense’ started in Gaza on Wednesday with the assassination of the head of Hamas’s military operations, Ahmad Jabari, 90 people were killed: 87 Palestinians, half of them civilians, and three Israeli civilians,” the paper writes. “Sunday was the deadliest day with 31 Palestinians killed, mostly women and children.”
The paper went on to quote a Hamas spokesperson vowing that Sunday’s “massacre” would not go unpunished.
The website of the London-based Guardian newspaper headlined its main article on the conflict on Monday morning, “Israeli air strikes inflict bitter toll on Gaza children.”
Reporting from Gaza, the paper’s Harriet Sherwood described unsettling scenes from the local Shifa hospital: “The bodies of four young children lay on two metal trays in the morgue, covered in dust and blood. A crowd of onlookers outside became increasingly distressed as the body of the children’s mother was wheeled in, covered in blankets.”