JERUSALEM — Efforts to agree on a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas intensified Tuesday, but the struggle to achieve even a brief pause in the fighting emphasized the obstacles to finding any lasting solution.
On the deadliest day of fighting in the week-old conflict, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Jerusalem and met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to push for a truce. She was due in Cairo on Wednesday to consult with Egyptian officials in contact with Hamas, placing her and the Obama administration at the center of a process fraught with multiple parties, interests and demands.
Officials on all sides had raised expectations that a cease-fire would begin around midnight, followed by negotiations for a longer-term agreement. But by the end of Tuesday, officials with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs Gaza, said no announcement would come until Wednesday at the earliest.
The Israelis, who have amassed tens of thousands of troops on the Gaza border and have threatened to invade for a second time in four years to end the rocket fire from Gaza, never publicly backed the idea of a short break in fighting. They said they were open to a diplomatic accord but were looking for something more enduring.
“If there is a possibility of achieving a long-term solution to this problem through diplomatic means, we prefer that,” Netanyahu said before meeting with Clinton at his office. “But if not, I’m sure you understand that Israel will have to take whatever actions necessary to defend its people.”
Clinton spoke of the need for “a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security and legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike.” It was unclear whether she was starting a complex task of shuttle diplomacy or whether she expected to achieve a pause in the hostilities and then head home.
The diplomatic moves came as the antagonists on both sides stepped up their attacks. Israeli aerial and naval forces assaulted several Gaza targets in multiple strikes, including a suspected rocket-launching site near Al Shifa Hospital. That attack killed more than a dozen people, bringing the total number of fatalities in Gaza to more than 130 – roughly half of them civilians, the Gaza Health Ministry said.
A delegation visiting from the Arab League canceled a news conference at the hospital because of the Israeli aerial assaults as wailing ambulances brought in victims.
The Israeli assaults carried into early Wednesday, with multiple blasts punctuating the otherwise darkened Gaza skies.
Militants in Gaza fired a barrage of at least 200 rockets into Israel, killing an Israeli soldier – the first military casualty on the Israeli side since the hostilities broke out. The Israeli military said the soldier, identified as Yosef Fartuk, 18, had died from a rocket strike that hit an area near Gaza. Israeli officials said a civilian military contractor working near the Gaza border was also killed, bringing the number of fatalities in Israel from the week of rocket mayhem to five.
Other Palestinian rockets hit the southern Israeli cities of Beersheba and Ashdod, and longer-range rockets were fired at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Neither main city was struck, and no casualties were reported. One Gaza rocket hit a building in Rishon LeZion, just south of Tel Aviv, injuring one person and wrecking the top three floors.
Egypt: Cease-fire is close
Senior Egyptian officials in Cairo said Israel and Hamas were “very close” to a cease-fire agreement. “We have not received final approval, but I hope to receive it any moment,” said Essam el-Haddad, President Mohammed Morsi’s top foreign affairs adviser.
Foreign diplomats who were briefed on the outlines of a tentative agreement said it had been structured in stages – first, an announcement of a cease-fire, followed by its implementation for 48 hours. That would allow time for Clinton to involve herself in the process and create a window for negotiators to agree on conditions for a longer-term cessation of hostilities.
U.S. officials said Washington was betting on the pragmatism of Egypt’s new president, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement with which Hamas is affiliated.
While President Barack Obama publicly stressed Israel’s right to self-defense because of domestic political concerns, officials said the administration also had decided to take an understanding approach to Morsi’s need to denounce Israel in order to appeal to his domestic audience.
No hope in Hillary
Within Hamas itself, there are divisions and fractured views on the truce negotiations. In Gaza on Tuesday, Fawzi Barhoum, the Hamas spokesman, said that “we hold absolutely no hope of Hillary Clinton” helping to resolve the conflict.
“We hold no hope in Obama or Hillary Clinton to do anything, just to save the occupation in their crisis,” Barhoum said in an interview outside Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. “Just support the occupation so it can do more and more massacres.”
Obama, who was in Asia, had found himself repeatedly on the phone with Middle Eastern leaders in recent days and decided that Clinton, who also spoke to a dozen of her counterparts here, could make a difference in establishing a cease-fire and asked her to make the trip.
Netanyahu’s calculations are numerous. He has an election looming in January, and agreeing to stop his operation in Gaza could be risky if rocket fire resumed. But sending troops into Gaza poses perhaps even more risks.
“The Israeli government will face its voters without any tangible achievement in hand to show,” Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, wrote Tuesday. He said that he did not believe Netanyahu had begun this operation with electoral considerations in mind, but that “the deliberations about ending it are deeply affected by political calculations.”
Netanyahu is also contending with a radically altered Middle East, and while he says that protecting his people is not dependent on who is in power in Egypt or Turkey, a reduced military operation and fewer civilian casualties in Gaza would make relations with both countries less difficult.