As Operation Pillar of Defense entered its sixth day on Monday, momentum toward a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was gathering pace as an international mediation effort, led by Egypt, was working on a draft agreement that would put an end to the fighting. An associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Reuters that while Israel prefers a diplomatic solution to the crisis, the Israel Defense Forces is ready for a ground invasion. "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," the official told Reuters. "But if diplomacy fails, we may well have no alternative but to send in ground forces."
But despite the indirect cease-fire talks, or because of them, Hamas continued firing rockets at Israel. On Monday morning, several rockets were fired at Israeli cities, with one landing on a school in Ashkelon. There were no injuries as the school was empty but significant damage was caused to the structure. All schools in Ashkelon were closed on Monday. Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, speaking on Israel Radio, said that during cease-fire talks "all sides are trying to improve their bargaining positions, but we embarked on this operation to bring quiet to the south."
"Until Hamas understands that its escalation was not worth it, and that terror from Sinai is not worth it, we will continue. If from Gaza they didn’t fire rockets on our civilians, and if they didn't fire on our soldiers near the border, and if they didn't send terrorists our way from the Sinai, then we wouldn't have any problems with Gaza. This event has shown us that Abbas is irrelevant when it comes to Gaza. There are talks in Cairo and there is no representative of the Palestinian Authority," Ya'alon said.
The IDF struck in southern Gaza early Monday morning, killing two Palestinians, the Maan news agency reported. Israel bombed some 80 sites in Gaza overnight, the IDF said, adding in a statement that targets included "underground rocket launching sites, terror tunnels and training bases" as well as "buildings owned by senior terrorist operatives." One of the buildings targeted was the central police headquarters, which was entirely destroyed, according to a BBC reporter on the scene. Ten civilians and two field commanders from the Islamic Jihad faction were killed and at least 30 other Palestinians were hurt in the new airstrikes, hospital officials told Reuters.
The IDF assesses that the majority of Hamas' underground military infrastructure is intact, Israel Radio military reporter Carmela Menashe reported Monday. The rush to a cease-fire is also meant to ward off an IDF ground invasion of Gaza, which Israel says is imminent.
Tens of thousands of IDF troops were massed at launching points around the Gaza Strip waiting for an order to deploy. The IDF is making serious preparations for a ground offensive, and over the past several days, units from the Paratroopers, Givati, Golani, and Nahal infantry brigades; armored corps; and artillery units were deployed on the Gaza Strip border. "The IDF is prepared for a ground assault," IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Israeli cabinet ministers on Sunday. As of Monday afternoon, the army was waiting for a decision by the government on whether or not to expand the operation and send in ground forces.
In the six days of fighting, some 546 rockets have struck Israel — the vast majority in open fields and unpopulated areas. According to the IDF, 33 rockets landed in urban areas, causing three Israeli fatalities. There were 290 interceptions by the Iron Dome system. The IDF hit 1,127 targets in Gaza, and according to Palestinian accounts, 19 Hamas combatants have been killed. According to Palestinian Health Ministry officials quoted by the BBC, there were 90 Palestinian casualties in the six days of fighting, at least half of whom were civilians.
Israel's declared goal is to deplete Gaza arsenals and force Hamas to stop rocket fire that has bedeviled Israeli border towns for years. The rockets now have greater range, putting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within their reach.
Netanyahu and his close ministers prefer reaching a cease-fire agreement with Hamas and ending the current round of fighting. Ya'alon, speaking on Channel 10 TV on Sunday night, said the equation for a cease-fire was simple: "Quiet will be met with quiet."
Reports on Sunday as to the nature of the cease-fire talks, held in Cairo, were kept deliberately opaque by the Israeli side, which denied reports in the Arab press that "an Israeli" had traveled to Cairo to receive a draft agreement and brought it back to Jerusalem. There was no official word from Prime Minister's Office of this envoy. There were differing accounts of the progress or otherwise of the talks; various media outlets reported the talks had broken down while others reported significant progress.
A minister in the unofficial Forum of Nine group of senior ministers, which Netanyahu created to discuss national security issues, said that Israel's main demand for a cease-fire was a "return of quiet" that includes a cessation of rocket fire against Israel, an end to attacks on Israeli forces along the Gaza Strip border, and a cessation to the planning and execution of terror attacks from within the Sinai Peninsula. In return, Israel promises to refrain from acting against terror targets in Gaza. "If a cease-fire can be reached now with these conditions then there is no reason for a ground operation," the senior minister told Israel Hayom. Russia Today TV reported on Monday that in addition, Israel is insisting on an immediate cessation of arms smuggling into Gaza as a condition for a cease-fire.
Cease-fire talks stepped into high gear on Sunday with the visit of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was due to arrive in Cairo to weigh in on cease-fire efforts led by Egypt, which borders both Israel and Gaza and whose Islamist-rooted government has been hosting leaders of Hamas.
Netanyahu on Sunday continued to speak with foreign leaders, and according to his office, said that he would "do everything possible to end the attacks against us. Half of our population is under fire, this is a situation that cannot continue."
When presented with cease-fire ideas, Netanyahu responded, "First let them stop the firing — after that we'll talk about the rest."
On Sunday, Hamas spokespeople said that Israel had presented terms that were unacceptable. Deputy Hamas chief Mousa Abu Marzook vowed that Hamas "would fight to the last drop of blood."
Izzat Risheq, aide to Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, wrote on Facebook that Hamas would enter a truce only after Israel "stops its aggression, ends its policy of targeted assassinations and lifts the blockade of Gaza." Hamas’ demands, as presented by Mashaal, include open borders for Gaza and international guarantees that Israel will halt all attacks on Gaza, including targeted killings of the movement’s leaders. Speaking to Al-Jazeera, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamed said that talks between Egyptian intelligence officials and Israeli officials had reached agreement on 90 percent of the cease-fire terms. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev would not say Sunday whether Israel seeks a demilitarized Gaza as part of a broader cease-fire package, but said any deal must guarantee an end to rocket fire for good.
“We don’t want a… quick fix and in two weeks or two months we have another round,” he said. “‘The people of southern Israel have the right to live normal lives, not in fear of incoming missiles.”
In Israel, opposition to a cease-fire came from within Netanyahu's own joint Likud-Beytenu list, with Energy and Water Resources Minister Uzi Landau saying, "We are not yet at the point of a cease-fire. A cease-fire now would be a serious mistake. The goals of the operation must be achieved at any price, even with a ground incursion, if it can't be avoided. We can't repeat the mistakes of the past, when we stopped operations in the middle, before ensuring that we had destroyed the terrorist infrastructure and before ensuring that we had made sure they could no longer smuggle weapons. This matter requires perseverance and patience."