RPT-WRAPUP 9-Israel says prefers diplomacy but ready to invade Gaza

Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller
Reuters Middle East

* Israel and Hamas each expect the other to hold fire first

* Opinion poll shows Israeli support for a ground war is


* Thousands turn out for funeral of family killed in Gaza

GAZA/JERUSALEM, Nov 19 (Reuters) - Israel bombed dozens more

targets in the Gaza Strip on Monday and said that, while it was

prepared to step up its offensive by sending in troops, it

preferred a diplomatic solution that would end Palestinian

rocket fire.

Egypt said a deal for a truce could be close, though by late

evening there was no end to six days of heavy missile exchanges

as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed his next

steps with his inner circle of senior ministers.

U.S. President Barack Obama called Egypt's President Mohamed

Mursi, who has been trying to use his influence with Hamas, his

fellow Islamists who run Gaza, to broker a halt. Obama

"underscored the necessity of Hamas ending rocket fire", the

White House said.

The leader of Hamas, speaking in Cairo, said it was up to

Israel to end a new conflict that he said it had started.

Israel, which assassinated a Hamas military chief on Wednesday,

says its air strikes are to halt Palestinian rocket attacks.

To Mursi and in a subsequent call to Netanyahu, Obama said

he regretted the deaths of Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

Israeli attacks on the sixth day of fighting raised the

number of Palestinian dead to 101, the Hamas-run Health Ministry

said, listing 24 children among them. Subsequent deaths raised

the toll in Gaza to 106. Hospital officials in the enclave said

more than half of those killed were non-combatants. Three

Israeli civilians died on Thursday in a rocket strike.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, touring the region in

the hopes of helping to broker a peace deal, arrived in Cairo,

where he met Egypt's foreign minister in preparation for talks

with Mursi on Tuesday. He also plans to meet Netanyahu in


With the power balances of the Middle East drastically

reshaped by the Arab Spring during a first Obama term that began

two days after Israel ended its last major Gaza offensive, the

newly re-elected U.S. president faces testing choices to achieve

Washington's hopes for peace and stability across the region.


Militants in the Gaza Strip fired 110 rockets at southern

Israel on Monday, causing no casualties, police said. Israel

said it had conducted 80 air strikes on the enclave. The figures

meant a relative easing in ferocity - over 1,000 rockets have

been fired in the six days, and 1,350 air strikes carried out.

For the second straight day, Israeli missiles blasted a

tower block in the city of Gaza housing international media. Two

people were killed there, one of them an Islamic Jihad militant.

Khaled Meshaal, exile leader of Hamas, said a truce was

possible but the Islamist group, in charge of the Gaza Strip

since 2007, would not accept Israeli demands and wanted Israel

to halt its strikes first and lift its blockade of the enclave.

"Whoever started the war must end it," he told a news

conference in Cairo, adding that Netanyahu, who faces an

election in January, had asked for a truce, an assertion a

senior Israeli official described as untrue.

Meshaal said Netanyahu feared the domestic consequences of a

"land war" of the kind Israel launched four years ago: "He can

do it, but he knows that it will not be a picnic and that it

could be his political death and cost him the elections."

For Israel, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon has said that

"if there is quiet in the south and no rockets and missiles are

fired at Israel's citizens, nor terrorist attacks engineered

from the Gaza Strip, we will not attack".

Yaalon also said Israel wanted an end to guerrilla activity

by militants from Gaza in the neighbouring Egyptian Sinai


Although 84 percent of Israelis support the current Gaza

assault, according to a poll by Israel's Haaretz newspaper, only

30 percent want an invasion.


"Israel is prepared and has taken steps, and is ready for a

ground incursion which will deal severely with the Hamas

military machine," an official close to Netanyahu told Reuters.

"We would prefer to see a diplomatic solution that would

guarantee the peace for Israel's population in the south. If

that is possible, then a ground operation would no longer be

required. If diplomacy fails, we may well have no alternative

but to send in ground forces," he added.

Egypt, where Mursi has his roots in Hamas's spiritual

mentors the Muslim Brotherhood, is acting as a mediator in the

biggest test yet of Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel since

the fall of Hosni Mubarak early last year.

"I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of

negotiation, (means) it is very difficult to predict," Egyptian

Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, who visited Gaza on Friday in a

show of support for its people, said in an interview in Cairo

for the Reuters Middle East Investment Summit.

Egypt has been hosting leaders of both Hamas and Islamic

Jihad, a smaller armed faction.

Israeli media said a delegation from Israel had also been to

Cairo for truce talks. A spokesman for Netanyahu's government

declined comment on the matter.

Egypt's foreign minister, who met U.N. chief Ban on Monday,

is expected to visit Gaza on Tuesday with a delegation of Arab



Thousands turned out on Gaza's streets to mourn four

children and five women who were among 11 people killed in an

Israeli air strike that flattened a three-storey home the

previous day.

The bodies were wrapped in Palestinian and Hamas flags.

Echoes of explosions mixed with cries of grief and defiant

chants of "God is greatest!".

Those deaths drew more international calls for an end to

hostilities and could test Western support for an offensive that

Israel billed as self-defence after years of cross-border rocket


Israel said it was investigating the strike that brought the

home crashing down on the al-Dalu family, where the dead spanned

four generations. Some Israeli newspapers said the house might

have been targeted by mistake.

In scenes recalling Israel's 2008-2009 winter invasion of

the coastal enclave, tanks, artillery and infantry have massed

in field encampments along the sandy, fenced-off border.

Israel has also authorised the call-up of 75,000 military

reservists, so far mobilising around half that number.

The Gaza fighting adds to worries of world powers watching

an already combustible region, where several Arab autocrats have

been toppled in popular revolts in the past two years and a

civil war in Syria threatens to spread beyond its borders.

In the absence of any prospect of permanent peace between

Israel and Islamist factions such as Hamas, mediated deals for

each to hold fire unilaterally have been the only formula for

stemming bloodshed in the past.

Hamas and other groups in Gaza are sworn enemies of the

Jewish state, which they refuse to recognise and seek to

eradicate, claiming all Israeli territory as rightfully theirs.

Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian

Territories in 2006. A year later, after the collapse of a unity

government under President Mahmoud Abbas, it seized Gaza in a

brief civil war with Abbas's forces.

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