Egypt tries to broker peace as 18 die in strike on Gaza


EGYPTIAN OFFICIALS were in contact with Israel and militant groups in Gaza last night in an effort to end the latest flare-up which has left at least 18 Palestinians dead from Israeli air strikes and sent more than one million Israelis into bomb shelters and secure rooms.

The worst escalation in more than a year began on Friday when an Israeli air strike killed Zoheir el-Keisi, the secretary general of the popular resistance committees in the Gaza Strip. He was killed along with another senior militant who was released last October as part of a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas which included the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Israel claimed that Mr el-Keisi was involved in planning an attack against it to be carried out from the Egyptian Sinai.

His death prompted two smaller factions, the Islamic Jihad and the popular resistance committees, to fire rockets into southern Israel. More than 140 have been fired from Gaza since Friday, forcing in excess of one million Israelis to remain close to bomb shelters. Schools throughout southern Israel remained closed. Two residents were seriously wounded.

Israeli air strikes against Gaza resulted in the death of 16 militants and two civilians, including a 12-year-old boy.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the air strikes will continue, in order to protect Israeli civilians. “We exacted a heavy price . . . We will continue to overcome these terror threats.” Hamas prime minister in Gaza Ismail Haniyeh said the priority was to stop Israeli attacks and protect Palestinian civilians. But head of Islamic Jihad in Gaza Khaled Batch said there was no point in discussing a truce as long as “Israeli aggression” against Gaza continued.

Israeli officials doubted that the escalation would lead to a ground offensive, similar to the invasion at the end of 2008. Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel radio that there was no point in launching another large-scale offensive in Gaza unless it set out to topple the Hamas regime.

Israel’s state of the art Iron Dome rocket defence system succeeded in intercepting about 90 per cent of missiles aimed at the three largest cities in southern Israel: Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issued a statement deploring the loss of civilian life and urged all sides to re-establish calm.