Israeli strike kills Palestinian commander as cease-fire calls mount
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People look at a residential building after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashdod, southern Israel, Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo) more >
By Guy Taylor
The Washington Times
Monday, May 17, 2021
Fresh Israeli strikes on Gaza killed a top military official Monday of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group the State Department considers an Iranian-backed terrorist group blamed for some of the thousands of rockets launched at Israeli in recent days.
The killing of Hussam Abu Harbeed, the armed commander of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in north Gaza, was seen as a major battlefield gain for Israel at a moment when Israeli leaders are reportedly weighing whether to pull back and embrace international calls for a cease-fire after more than a week of war.
“There is a sense Israel could seriously talk cease-fire by midweek,” one diplomatic source in the region told The Washington Times on condition of anonymity.
But there was little sign of momentum toward a truce on Monday, despite mounting international calls for a halt to the violence. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which is aligned with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and politically controls Gaza, might be within reach.
“Egypt is going to great lengths to reach a cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians — and hope still exists that a collective action could end the conflict,” Mr. el-Sissi told the Al Arabiya news outlet.
Mr. el-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah spent the weekend scrambling to erect diplomatic back channels between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But there are indications that both sides continue to seek strategic war gains.
Analysts say the Palestinians and their Iranian backers are pressing the narrative internationally that Israel is the aggressor in the latest round of violence. Israeli forces, on the other hand, are seizing the current moment to pound militant positions in Gaza in response to waves of rockets fired from there toward Israeli cities and towns.
An Egyptian diplomat said on background that the current efforts to negotiate a cease-fire are focused on two issues — an end to all attacks from both sides and halting Israeli policies in the contested city of Jerusalem that helped spark the fighting more than a week ago. These include police raids against Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the planned evictions of Palestinians by Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem.
The diplomat said mediators were counting on the Biden administration to put pressure on Israel to stop its offensive and there were expectations for action in the coming 48 hours.
But Washington has so far declined to publicly criticize Israel‘s part in the fighting or send a top-level envoy to the region.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Monday that Washington will support any initiative to stop the fighting, but signaled the U.S. does not intend to put pressure on the two sides to accept a cease-fire.
“Ultimately it is up to the parties to make clear that they want to pursue a cease-fire,” Mr. Blinken said.
A State Department spokesman later said Mr. Blinken spoke by phone Monday with Jordanian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi and that “both agreed on the urgency of working toward a sustainable calm.
During the call, Mr. Blinken also “reiterated that both Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve to live in safety and security,” the spokesman said.
The comments came after Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the Palestinian group has been contacted by the United Nations, Russia, Egypt and Qatar as part of cease-fire efforts, but “will not accept a solution that is not up to the sacrifices of the Palestinian people.”
The commander of Iran’s elite military Quds Force, meanwhile, has promised Hamas that Iranian forces will provide strong backing for the group in the escalating clash with Israel. Brig. Gen. Esmaeil Qaani, who heads Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ overseas force, spoke by phone with Mr. Haniyeh over the weekend, praising what he called the “resistance forces’ successful confrontation with the Zionist enemy.”
The call was reported Sunday by the Iranian Tasnim news agency.
The State Department has designated both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations since 1997. The department has separately listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984, and the most recent “Country Reports on Terrorism” compiled by the department contended that Iran in 2019 “provided support to Hamas and other designated Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad.”
Israel‘s military unleashed a wave of heavy airstrikes on Gaza, saying it destroyed 9 miles of militant tunnels and the homes of nine Hamas commanders. The strikes came a day after the deadliest attack in the current round of hostilities between Israel and Gaza‘s Hamas rulers, which killed 42 people and flattened three buildings in Gaza.
Gaza‘s mayor, Yahya Sarraj, told Al-Jazeera TV that the strikes had caused extensive damage to roads and other infrastructure.
“If the aggression continues we expect conditions to become worse,” he said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.