Hopes for Israel-Hamas Cease-Fire Build as International Pressure Grows
The Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the barrage of rocket fire by Hamas into Israel eased overnight on Thursday as senior officials on both sides privately expressed optimism that a cease-fire agreement could come by the weekend, according to a senior Israeli official familiar with the negotiations.
As the humanitarian situation for the two million people living in the Gaza Strip has grown more dire by the day, international pressure has mounted to find a way to end a cycle of violence in which civilians are bearing a heavy cost.
President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday, telling the Israeli leader that he “expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire,” administration officials said.
Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, met with Mr. Netanyahu on Thursday to press for peace.
Since the start of the conflict 11 days ago, Israeli airstrikes have killed more than 200 Palestinians, including over 60 children, according to the Gaza health ministry. The Israeli military said that more than 130 of those killed were combatants. Hamas rocket attacks have killed more than a dozen people in Israel, including two children, according to the Israeli authorities.
Hamas has launched more than 4,000 rockets at southern Israel — the vast majority shot down by Israeli defenses, falling short of their targets or landing in unpopulated areas. That steady onslaught appeared to slow overnight, with Israeli military officials recording 70 rockets between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Israel has targeted around 1,000 sites in Gaza that it claims hold significant military value, according to Israeli military officials. However, the campaign has also caused widespread destruction of homes and critical infrastructure, displacing tens of thousands from their homes and causing dire shortages of water and medical supplies.
While the pace of the air assault eased overnight, Israeli warplanes launched several airstrikes before dawn, sending fiery explosions and huge plumes of smoke into the night.
The continued fighting highlighted how fraught the final hours before any cease-fire deal can be — with the risk of miscalculations high and last-minute attempts to strike a blow derailing diplomatic efforts.
The shape of a possible cease-fire deal between Hamas and Israel started to come into clearer focus on Thursday, even as diplomats and Middle East experts cautioned that the last moments before any agreement are fraught with risk and uncertainty.
As part of the possible deal under discussion, Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, would halt all rocket fire at Israeli cities, according to officials familiar with the negotiations. Israel is also demanding that Hamas stop digging attack tunnels toward Israel and halt violent demonstrations on the Gaza-Israeli border, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing continuing talks.
Israel, for its part, would have to stop its bombardment of Gaza.
The agreement would also aim to include later stages, including returning the bodies of two soldiers and two Israeli civilians held by Hamas. In return, Israel would allow the passage of goods and money into Gaza, the officials said.
A senior Hamas official, Mousa Abu Marzouq, told an Arabic television channel on Wednesday that he expected a cease-fire agreement within a day or two. But he warned, “Our equation is clear — bombing for bombing, and escalation will be met with escalation.”
Officially, Israel has denied that negotiations are taking place or that a deal is imminent, but that may be a tactic designed to put pressure on Hamas.
The senior Israeli representative in the negotiations — which Egypt is helping coordinate — is the national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, who is considered close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The two senior Hamas figures involved in the negotiations have close ties to Egyptian intelligence.
Talks have been delayed in part because the Egyptians have sometimes had trouble contacting senior Hamas officials, who have often fled underground and ceased using electronic devices because they fear Israeli attempts to kill them.
The mob violence between Jews and Arabs has been among the most disturbing developments of the latest Israel-Gaza conflict, prompting President Reuven Rivlin of Israel to warn of the perils of “civil war.” This week, The Times’s Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner visited the Israeli city of Lod, a few miles south of Tel Aviv, as the conflict continued into its 11th day.
A veneer of calm has been restored to Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish town of 80,000. It was a stark contrast to the scene just over a week ago.
At that time, some 40 Orthodox Jewish families fled their homes as angry mobs rampaged in the streets. Many needed police protection when they fled and rioters set fire to cars, apartments, synagogues and even a religious school during three nights of unrest. About 30 families had returned by Wednesday.
Some Arab families from the same neighborhood were also forced to flee after dozens of right-wing Jewish vigilantes from outside the city, including armed West Bank settlers, came into town and attacked Arab property. Witnesses in the city said they had heard gunshots from both sides.
Even with calm mostly restored and most of the burned-out cars and trucks removed, the air is still filled with a faint acrid smell lingering from the arson attacks.
The city, which had an uneasy and fragile coexistence even before the latest conflict, remained under a state of emergency as hundreds of Border Police officers patrolled areas of friction.
A Jewish resident who was critically injured when Arab protesters threw a heavy rock at him from a bridge died of his wounds and was buried on Tuesday. Another Jewish resident who was stabbed and severely wounded a week ago remained in hospital.
Similar scenes of violence played out in other mixed cities and Arab towns, including Acre and Haifa, long proud of their relations with their neighbors. Jews beat a driver who was presumed to be Arab almost to death in a Tel Aviv suburb.
“I believe we can get back to where we were before,” said Avi Rokach, a leader of the religious community in Lod. “But it might take some time.”
Rami Salama, an Arab resident of a mixed Lod neighborhood that was worst hit by the violence, said, “I only want peace and love here, really.”
But he said he feared that peace might prove elusive as people seek vengeance for the violence and blood demands more blood.
Under growing international pressure, Israel and Hamas are said to be edging toward a cease-fire that could end their deadliest conflict since a 2014 war. But the history of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities is littered with agreements that have failed to resolve the underlying disputes.
Past cease-fires between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, have usually gone in stages, beginning with an agreement that each side will stop attacking the other, a dynamic that Israelis call “quiet for quiet.”
That means Hamas halting rocket attacks into Israel and Israel ceasing bombardment of Gaza.
Pauses in the fighting are usually followed by other steps: Israel easing its blockade of Gaza to allow humanitarian relief, fuel and other goods to enter; Hamas reining in protesters and allied militant groups that attack Israel; and both sides exchanging prisoners or those killed in action. So far, this time, Israel has not used ground forces in Gaza.
But bigger challenges — such as a more thorough rehabilitation of Gaza and improving relations between Israel, Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian party that controls the West Bank — have remained elusive over the past several rounds of violence.
There is rebuilding after every cycle of violence, usually with aid from the United Nations, the European Union and Qatar, but without a permanent peace, rebuilding is always risky.
Despite the devastating toll on Palestinian civilians and the extensive damage to homes, schools and medical facilities in Gaza, the current conflict has been more limited than the wars Israel and Hamas waged in 2008 and 2014, when Israeli troops entered Gaza. In past conflicts, fierce fighting has erupted in the days before and after cease-fires as both sides sought to strike decisive blows.
In July 2014, six days after the Israeli Army began bombarding Gaza, Egypt proposed a cease-fire that Israel agreed to. But Hamas said that it addressed none of its demands, and the cycle of rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes resumed after less than 24 hours.
Egypt announced another cease-fire two days later, but Israel then sent in tanks and ground troops and began firing into Gaza from the sea, saying that its aim was to destroy tunnels that Hamas uses to carry out attacks. Over the next several weeks, Israeli forces periodically paused their attacks to allow humanitarian aid, but the fighting continued.
In all, nine truces came and went before the 2014 conflict ended, after 51 days, with more than 2,000 Palestinians and more than 70 Israelis killed.
- Hosam Salem for The New York Times
- Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times
- Dan Balilty for The New York Times
- Hosam Salem for The New York Times
- Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
- Hosam Salem for The New York Times
- Nir Elias/Reuters
As the conflict between Isreal and Hamas stretched into its 11th day, these images capture some of destruction and loss.
Tel Aviv has long rejoiced in its reputation as a secular, largely liberal city, where drag queens, women in head scarves, and men in skullcaps walk the same streets and the tumult of Israeli politics can be easily set aside in favor of an oversized beachside margarita.
But in recent days the strife between Israel and Hamas has laid bare the fragility of the city’s bubble. A barrage of thousands of rockets has frayed nerves, even in a place conditioned by decades of war and protected by Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile system.
New York Times correspondents across Israel, including Tel Aviv, its commercial center, spoke to Israelis of various ages on Thursday to take the temperature on the ground.
“My personal feeling is that this operation is justified,” said Jonathan Navon, 25, an engineering student from Tel Aviv. “I can say that as a civilian living in Tel Aviv who spent three consecutive days in shelters, we really feel attacked by a terror organization.”
Mr. Navon’s sentiment echoed that of many Israelis who have been posting on social media about the fright of hearing the sound of missiles and antimissile defenses exploding as well as the terror of calculating the time it would take to get to a shelter.
Although the streets are less crowded than usual, Tel Aviv residents said they were trying to maintain a veneer of normalcy, including going to work. But there is an edginess in the air.
Beyond the visceral fear of incoming rockets, the conflict can be polarizing when it comes to apportioning blame.
Some Israelis have criticized Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for fanning the recent tensions in Jerusalem among the police, right-wing Israelis and Palestinian protesters that boiled over into conflict. But Israelis on both the left and right said they supported the government’s goal of disabling Hamas.
The conflict has spurred an international backlash against Israel, with condemnation by political leaders and pro-Palestinian protesters taking to the streets in Paris, London, Montreal and elsewhere, and castigating Israel for killing civilians, including more than 60 children.
Mr. Navon said he was frustrated by efforts to try to prosecute Israel on social media. “These attempts to simplify and flatten this entire conflict to one or two sentences on a story in Instagram is a mistake, misses the point and mainly deceives people,” he said.
Amir Efrimi, 54, a designer from Tzur Hadassah, a town southwest of Jerusalem, blamed Mr. Netanyahu for aggravating tensions in Jerusalem. But he, too, pushed back against criticism of Israel.
“We have been in these situations before where horrible footage is screened on TV, but I have never gotten condemnations from regular people in other countries,” he said, blaming outspoken interest groups. “I have stopped worrying about them,” he added.
As diplomacy aimed at stopping hostilities grows more feverish with each passing day, some Israelis appeared divided on wisdom of declaring a cease-fire.
Noga Kolonski, 18, a student at the Jerusalem High School for the Arts, said that it didn’t make sense to wait any longer, with the trials of the coronavirus pandemic having been quickly supplanted by the need to run for a bomb shelter.
“We have to give people a moment to live,” she said.
But Hen Shmidman, 16, a student at a religious school who lives in a Jewish settlement south of Jerusalem, was adamant that Israel’s offensive should continue. “It’s just an endless cycle, and we have to break the cycle and finish it,” he said. “We have to take down Hamas.”
— Dan Bilefsky, Irit Pazner Garshowitz, Myra Noveck and Gabby Sobelman
Germany’s foreign minister called for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel on Thursday and pledged his country’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself against what he called “massive and unacceptable attacks” from Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
“The fact that we see that Hamas has already fired rockets in the south of Israel since we arrived is an indication for us of how serious the situation in which the people of Israel find themselves is,” said the minister, Heiko Maas, during a brief visit to the region to speak with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
He met with his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, at the airport in Tel Aviv shortly after his arrival.
“The number of victims is raising daily. That is very concerning and the reason we are supporting international efforts to reach a cease-fire,” Mr. Maas said, adding that his diplomatic efforts were supported by Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the United States.
The German minister was expected to convey the same message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority later in the day.
Before that meeting, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany spoke by telephone with Mr. Abbas, her office said. The two leaders agreed to support initiatives for a cease-fire to be reached quickly, although the chancellor stressed that Germany continued to support Israel’s right to defend itself.
Mr. Maas had said on Twitter before leaving Germany: “The international community can help bring about an end to the violence and a lasting cease-fire. And we must talk about how we can find a way back to a peace agreement.”
European leaders have called for an end to the conflict, mindful of the tensions that it threatens in their home countries. France and Germany have seen pro-Palestinian demonstrations turn violent, with attacks on local Jewish institutions and memorials. Governments fear that such internal violence will worsen the longer the conflict lasts.
GAZA CITY — Riad Ishkontana had promised his children that their building on Al Wahida Street was safe, though for Zein, his 2-year-old son, the thunder of the airstrikes spoke louder than his reassurances.
The Israelis had never bombed the neighborhood before, he told them. Theirs was a comfortable, tranquil area by Gaza City standards, full of professionals and shops, nothing military. The explosions were still far away. To soothe them all, he started calling home “the house of safety.”
Mr. Ishkontana, 42, tried to believe it, too, though around them the death toll was climbing — not by inches, but by leaps, by housefuls, by families.
He was still telling the children about their house of safety all the way up until after midnight early Sunday morning, when he and his wife were watching more plumes of gray smoke rising from Gaza on television. She went to put the five children to bed. For all his attempts at comforting them, the family felt more secure sleeping all together in the boys’ room in the middle of the third-floor apartment.
Then a flash of bright light, and the building swayed. He said he rushed toward the boys’ room. Boom. The last thing he saw before the floor gave way beneath him and the walls fell on him, then a concrete pillar, then the roof, was his wife pulling at the mattress where she had already tucked in three of their children, trying to drag it out.
“My kids!” she was screaming, but the doorway was too narrow. “My kids!”
— Iyad Abuheweila and Vivian Yee
As violence racks the Middle East, turmoil of a different kind is growing in the United States. Many young American Jews are confronting the region’s longstanding strife in a very different context, with very different pressures, from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
The Israel of their lifetime has been powerful, no longer appearing to some to be under constant existential threat. The violence comes after a year when mass protests across the United States have changed how many Americans see racial and social justice. The pro-Palestinian position has become more common, with prominent progressive members of Congress offering impassioned speeches in defense of the Palestinians.
At the same time, reports of anti-Semitism are rising across the country.
Many Jews in America remain unreservedly supportive of Israel and its government. Still, the events of recent weeks have left some families struggling to navigate both the crisis abroad and the wide-ranging response from American Jews at home. What is at stake is not just geopolitical, but deeply personal.
“It is an identity crisis,” said Dan Kleinman, 33, who grew up in Brooklyn. “Very small in comparison to what is happening in Gaza and the West Bank, but it is still something very strange and weird.”
— Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham
The government of the Philippines, one of the largest sources of foreign labor in Israel, said on Thursday that it would temporarily stop sending its citizens to work there because of the conflict.
The announcement came a day after a rocket attack by Hamas militants killed two Thai agricultural workers and wounded at least seven others at a packaging house in southern Israel. A week earlier, a Hamas strike killed an Indian womanwho worked as a caregiver in the city of Ashkelon.
The Philippines’ labor secretary, Silvestre Bello III, told the ABS-CBN news network that it would not allow workers to travel to Israel “until we can ensure their safety.”
“As of now we won’t be deploying workers,” he said, adding: “As we can see, there’s bombing everywhere. If we deploy, it would be difficult — it would be my responsibility.”
About 30,000 Filipinos work in Israel, mostly as domestic workers and as caregivers for older or disabled Israelis. They are part of a large labor force of more than 200,000 foreigners who work in primarily low-wage jobs in sectors like construction and agriculture.
Investigations by news outlets and rights groups have highlighted these workers’ accusations of underpayment, crowded living conditions and occupational hazards. Filipino workers, most of whom are female, risk deportation if they marry or give birth, both of which are forbidden under Israeli laws governing foreign workers.
Yet more Filipinos are applying to work in Israel, where they earn higher salaries than they could at home, and demand for their services is increasing. The Israeli government recently relaxed educational requirements for overseas caregivers, and 400 Filipinos were set to travel to Israel until the Philippine government announced the pause.
No Filipino has been injured since fighting between Israel and Hamas militants began on May 10, officials said. The Philippine government has said that it is prepared to bring its citizens home from Israel amid the conflict, but that none have expressed interest.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said in a briefing on Wednesday that the recent deaths of the foreign workers were “one more manifestation of the fact that Hamas indiscriminately targets everyone.”
Israel has likewise been criticized for military airstrikes in Gaza that have killed more than 200 Palestinians and wounded more than 1,600 since May 10.
Our Jerusalem bureau chief, Patrick Kingsley, examined the events that have led to the past week’s violence, the worst between Israelis and Palestinians in years. A little-noticed police action in Jerusalem was among them. He writes:
Twenty-seven days before the first rocket was fired from Gaza this week, a squad of Israeli police officers entered the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, brushed the Palestinian attendants aside and strode across its vast limestone courtyard. Then they cut the cables to the loudspeakers that broadcast prayers to the faithful from four medieval minarets.
It was the night of April 13, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It was also Memorial Day in Israel, which honors those who died fighting for the country. The Israeli president was delivering a speech at the Western Wall, a sacred Jewish site that lies below the mosque, and Israeli officials were concerned that the prayers would drown it out.
Here is his full account of that night and the events that later unfolded.