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Brief lull in Gaza ends; first Israeli killed near border

JERUSALEM — After a brief, one-sided cease-fire, Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip resumed on Tuesday the all-too-familiar rhythm of their latest battle: More than 100 rockets sent Israelis scrambling for shelter, Israeli airstrikes pounded tunnels and rocket launchers, and diplomats wrung their hands.

But Egypt’s failed effort to halt the hostilities did help clarify crucial differences from previous go-rounds that experts say make a resolution much more complicated to achieve. A simple return to the status quo, a “quiet for quiet” deal, no longer seems sufficient.

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Not for Hamas, the isolated Islamist faction that dominates Gaza and is desperate for economic relief for the coastal territory’s 1.7 million residents. And not for Israel, where there are growing calls for an international effort to disarm the Gaza militants or for Israel’s military to seize control of the area.

Even Egypt’s reclaiming of its traditional role as broker showed how much things had changed, with the new leadership in Cairo ending up closer to Israel’s position than to that of Hamas. Israel embraced Egypt’s proposal, which demanded few concessions of it, while Hamas seemed stunned by terms that did not meet any of its demands and refused to hold its fire.

“The world is radically different from the 2012 conflict,” said Nathan Thrall, an author of an International Crisis Group report on the situation released Monday, referring to the last intense cross-border exchange. “This thing is much harder to resolve.”

“Egypt helped its ally, Israel, achieve a face-saving unilateral cease-fire — that’s what happened,” Thrall said. “We had an Israeli unilateral cease-fire to which Hamas never agreed, and Egypt helped Israel market it.”

The lopsided battle claimed its first Israeli casualty Tuesday night, when Dror Khenin, 37, was killed by a mortar near the entrance to Gaza. The Gaza health ministry said four people there had been killed Tuesday, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 189 over eight days. Two died in the southern town of Rafah, one near Gaza’s eastern boundary with Israel, and one — a 24-year-old farmer, Ismail Fatouh, who was killed while working his land — in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City.

Failed effort

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The hostilities, which began July 7 after weeks of rising tension, are the third flare-up between Israel and Hamas in six years. They followed the abductions and killings of three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking in the occupied West Bank, for which Israel blamed Hamas, and of a 16-year-old Palestinian in what the authorities say was a revenge attack by extremist Jews.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority was set to meet on Wednesday in Cairo with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt. Secretary of State John Kerry, who had planned to go to Cairo on Tuesday, instead returned to Washington. He told reporters he was “prepared to fly back to the region tomorrow if I have to” and urged “all parties to support this cease-fire.”

Israel had little to lose by initially approving Egypt’s proposal at 9 a.m. Tuesday, with top ministers apparently concluding that they would be rewarded with calm or with international legitimacy for intensified attacks. It resumed its aerial campaign six hours later with more than 30 strikes after barrages from Gaza. Before midnight, it used recorded phone messages to warn as many as 100,000 Gaza residents to evacuate their homes before bombings.

The rocket fire from Gaza was steady throughout the day, pummeling southern Israel and causing sirens to sound as far north as Haifa, in the populous seaside suburb of Rishon LeZion, around Jerusalem and in the West Bank. By nightfall, the rockets and mortars from Gaza totaled 125. The Israeli military said 20 had been intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome defense system.

“Anyone who tries to hurt the citizens of Israel will be hurt by Israel. When there is no cease-fire, our answer is fire,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said from Tel Aviv as he convened his inner Cabinet for its second session of the day.

“It would have been preferable to resolve this in a diplomatic way, and this is what we tried to accomplish when we acceded to the cease-fire proposal today, but Hamas has left us with no alternative but to expand the campaign,” he added

Netanyahu fired his deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, a member of his Likud Party who was among several right-wingers to criticize the cease-fire plan. A more serious internal challenge remains in Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, who voted against the cease-fire and called for a full reoccupation of Gaza.

“This is now the third military operation, and the question now needs to be, ‘How can we prevent the fourth operation from taking place?’ ” Lieberman said at a news conference. “It is clear to me that you can eliminate the terrorism infrastructure only when you deal with it from the ground.”

Analysts said Tuesday that Hamas had engaged little with Egyptian leaders before Egypt unveiled its cease-fire proposal Monday night, and that it had tried in vain to get Turkey or Qatar to intervene on its behalf.

“The siege strangled Hamas and strangled Gaza and its people, so Hamas wants to tell the people: ‘Hey, look! We caused the siege, and now we cause its lifting,’ ” said Akram Atallah, a Gaza-based analyst.

But, Atallah noted, Hamas “can’t make unified decisions” because “the military leaders are unreachable and they have disappeared, so the movement cannot meet as the Israeli Cabinet does.”

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