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Late evening update (2 a.m. Israel/Gaza time): Relatively quiet on all fronts the last few hours. A hectic diplomatic day but a comparatively quiet military day, as Israeli troops battled with "at least 20 armed gunmen" Friday and five civilians were wounded when 15 rockets were fired into southern Israel.
Everyone is drawing breath, but it will pick up in several hours. Saturday is the day that Israel makes its move and puts all other actors on the spot, as the Cabinet declares a unilateral ceasefire. It is a giant snub to "world opinion", saying that Tel Aviv doesn't need an international agreement to get its political and military objectives. Gaza will still be blockaded, Israel will remain freedom of action to send military forces in whenever it wants, and Hamas will go unrecognised.
The responses of other countries and groups to this move will be critical. Is Egypt's Hosni Mubarak really prepared to be tied at the hip to Israel, in pursuit of the overthrow of Hamas, even though it may damage Cairo's position in the Arab world and even threaten internal instability? Will Saudi Arabia continue to stall on meaningful cease-fire efforts or, in light of growing internal concern with the Government position, will it shift towards other Gulf States who are demanding support of Hamas and unequivocal condemnation of Israel? Can Syria and Iran press their diplomatic initiative in forging a new bloc, and can Khaled Meshaall benefit?
And what in the world is Barack Obama doing? Did his people know of the Israeli plans, given Tzipi Livni's presence in Washington today, and tacitly approve them? Or have they sat so far back that they are trailing behind these developments?
No answers, just a lot of questions. But my speculation is that tomorrow will send a re-alignment of loyalties and objectives that ensures the political battle over Gaza enters a new phase.
10:15 p.m. Al Jazeera English declares Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal as "big diplomatic victor" with appearance at Qatar summit, especially with refusal of Palestianian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to attend.
9:45 p.m. A piece of significant news lost in the diplomatic shuffle: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for Israel to be blocked from the United Nations today.
Erdogan's declaration is not only a clear sign of the deterioration in the historically close Turkish-Israeli relationship. It is also a marker of Ankara's move towards Syria and Iran as the battlelines shape up amongst Arab states over the Gaza conflict and its aftermath.
8:30 p.m. Israel finally plays its hand: tomorrow, the Cabinet will hold a rare meeting on the Sabbath so it can vote on a unilateral ceasefire. This means Tel Aviv could declare "victory" without having to recognise Hamas. Instead of reaching a confirmed agreement on control of Gaza's borders, Israel will rely on arrangements with the United States --- including today's memorandum of understanding to block arms shipments to Hamas --- and Egypt to achieve its objectives.
This means that there may be no further military action, but there is no meaningful political settlement. The economic blockade will remain. Israel and Egypt, hoping for support from Washington, will continue to work for the re-installation of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. Indeed, it has been already been announced that Egypt is "considering whether to organize a summit in the near future between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas".
Since the issue is no longer whether Hamas agrees to a ceasefire, attention will turn to whether the Obama Administration supports this new Israeli manoeuvre to isolate and undermine Hamas. Equally important, the split in the Arab world may be exposed. Which way will Arab countries move? Will they support an Egypt-Israel alliance or will they take a firm line against Tel Aviv and in support of the Gazan leadership?
6:30 p.m. CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman finally gets into southern Gaza: how much local support do you think there will be for arrangements stage-managed by Cairo and Washington?
We toured an area near the border with Egypt where tunnels had been dug to get supplies into Gaza. There we saw dozens and dozens of houses completely destroyed, huge craters everywhere.
Earlier, when we caught the last bus from Egypt into Gaza, we spoke to Palestinian passengers, most of whom said they had been arrested in Egypt and abused by police before being deported. Their bitterness toward Egypt, particularly its president, Hosni Mubarak, and other Arab leaders over their perceived failure to provide support was echoed among others we spoke to.
This was matched by anger toward the United States, because most people know it supplies Israel with the warplanes bombarding them.
5:42 p.m. US and Israel sign deal to curb arms smuggling to Hamas, with Condoleezza Rice repeating the mantra that it will contribute to a "durable ceasefire". Details still not available, but Ha'aretz reports that it will include "patrols of the Persian Gulf, Sudan, and neighboring states". Diplomats said earlier that the arrangement included greater intelligence cooperation, and US technical and logistical assistance for border monitors. No US personnel will be involved on land with the border monitoring in either Gaza or Egypt.
Forgive me, but this doesn't sound like a vital component of a cease-fire agreement. Instead, it looks like US and Israel are trying to write a blank cheque to pick off "suspect" Iranian ships in international waters and to run covert and military operations in areas like Sudan.
5:40 p.m. Important clarification: Saudi Arabia did not attend today's meeting in Qatar.
5:20 p.m. Recapping on developments from the meeting in Qatar. Syrian President Bashir al-Assad has made the first big move, asking all Arab countries to cut "all direct and indirect" ties with Israel. Immediate effect is to suspend the "indirect peace negotiations" between Syria and Israel, but this is also Damascus's gambit to lead an Arab bloc against Tel Aviv and Cairo.
Al-Assad's move reinforced Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal's call for an isolation of Israel, and Qatar has now suspended relations with Tel Aviv.
5 p.m. More on the Israeli position on a cease-fire. Reuters, like Al Jazeera English, reports that Israel is pushing for a permanent ceasefire but adds our interpretation that Israel is insisting "Hamas must accept the return of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority to Gaza's border crossings".
Meanwhile, one Palestinian reported killed and several wounded by Israeli forces during protest in Hebron in the West Bank. Demonstrations took place in towns despite Israeli attempts to close off the West Bank for 48 hours.
4:35 p.m. Well, well. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz has broken ranks to ask, "Is Israel using illegal weapons in its offensive on Gaza?" The story by Amira Haas uses reports and witnesses to answer Yes with the level of detail beyond that in American and British reports. Further information is in a separate post.
4:25 p.m. Interesting twist on the diplomatic front: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow is "sending...signals to representatives of Hamas, and those states which have influence on Hamas", i.e. Iran and Syria, to support the Egyptian proposals.
Another sign that the Syrian and Iranian Governments and in particular Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad are big winners in this crisis....
4:15 p.m. A quick P.S. from "Rafah Kid": "The bulldozers are back on top of us again."
4 p.m. While trying to hold the line diplomatically, Israel is pursuing the other part of its plan to take Hamas out of power: "decapitation".
The Israelis are continuing their attempts to assassinate Hamas leaders. Having killed Saed Siam on Thursday but failed to "liquidate", as the US used to call it, military leader Mahmud az-Zahar, Tel Aviv has a partial short-term success. The question remains, however: how many Hamas leaders would have to be slain before the movement collapsed? I think the number is far more than Israel can achieve in the window before a cease-fire has to be agreed.
2 p.m. No significant updates on the Israeli position from talks in Cairo and later in Washington. For the moment, attention is on a sideshow --- important not for immediate Gaza situation but for Arab and Middle Eastern politics --- in Qatar. In addition to the Gulf States and Iran, Hamas and the Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) are present.
There is a clear possibility here, if the Gaza crisis continues, of a split in the Arab states and regional powers between those trying to isolate Hamas (notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and those backing the organisation and groups beyond Fatah (not only Syria but also Iran and Turkey).
12:20 p.m. "Rafah Kid", taking advantage of a few hours of electricity, has posted a short blog and photos from Rafah in southern Gaza.
12:15 p.m. Joshua Landis, in addition to some incisive comments on future US policy towards Syria, gets to the point on the next President and Israel/Palestine:
Obama’s support for Israel’s destruction of Hamas is not promising. If the US supports Israel’s continued efforts to hunt down Hamas’ leaders and kill them, the situation will be bleak. If Hamas is effectively decapitated, diplomacy will have little future for the Palestinians.
12:10 p.m. Bit of a twist that we had missed on the meeting of some Arab countries in Qatar: Egypt won't be there but Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad will be making an appearance. The dynamics, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia, are worth watching.
11:45 a.m. More notable is Ban's effusive praise of the PA for its achievements over the last three years. He makes clears that "they are the democratically elected leadership" of Palestine --- a bit curious in light of the 2006 elections in Gaza --- as he presses his call for "the unity of the Palestinians....Only you, the Palestinians, can do this."
Ban either has no comprehension of the complexities in Gazan politics and society, or he is happily marching along with the Israel-US blueprint for PA at the head of Gaza as well as the West Bank. I'm starting to believe the former.
11:40 a.m. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon now speaking at press conference with Palestinian Authority leader (depeand present/former (depending on your point of view) West Bank Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. He calls for a "sustainable" ceasefire --- "there is no time to lose" --- but thinks that an agreement is "very close".
Nothing too stunning there, especially in substance.
11:05 a.m. Al Jazeera's Mouin Rabbani believes two issues in cease-fire talks: Israel demand for permanent cessation, which Hamas rejects without permanent end to Israeli occupation of Gaza and West Bank, and Israel desire for international monitors on Egyptian side of border, which Cairo views as infringement on its sovereignty.
11 a.m. Israeli shelling continues as Friday prayers begin. Large funeral procession expected for Hamas leader Saed Siam.
10:16 a.m. Israel continues to stall on the diplomatic front while keeping military options open: Gaza offensive could be entering its "final act" but the extent of operations and length of time of that act kept open.
10:15 a.m. Oh, yes, the Gulf Cooperation Council states meet in Qatar today to discuss Gaza. There will be little of direct effect upon the conflict, especially since Egypt is pointedly staying away from the meeting. More intriguing will be inter-Arab politics, reading for example the position that Saudi Arabia takes.
9:50 a.m. Al Jazeera's Ayman Moyheldin: Gaza death toll 1133 with 5200 injured.
9:30 a.m. Our colleagues at "Alive in Gaza" have posted another audio interview with photojournalist Sameh Habeeb from Gaza City: "Drones in the Air".
9:15 a.m. Palestinian Statistics Bureau: Current conflict has cost the Gazan conflict $1.4 billion.
Morning update (8:45 a.m. Israel/Gaza time): The overnight development is on the diplomatic front. It appears that Israel's manoeuvre in the cease-fire negotiations will be an attempt to get an American presence in the international force monitoring Gaza's borders and tunnels. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni travels to Washington today and is reported to be seeking US guarantees. On Thursday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office put out the line that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had told Olmert that "the United States would be prepared to assist in solving the issue of smuggling". Meanwhile, Ministry of Defence official Amos Gilad returns to Cairo.
Israel says it struck more than 40 Gazan targets overnight, including two Hamas outposts. Its killing of key Hamas official Saed Siam yesterday continues to resonate: according to Al Jazeera, Fatah officials are privately expressing satisfaction over Siam's death.
Gazan death toll is now more than 1110. Israeli death toll remains at 13.
There continues to be a battle in the media between Israel's projection of its military success and the controversy over its shelling of civilian targets, including its use of white phosphorous. Speaking about the Israeli attack on the United Nations compound, UN official John Ging applied the "duck test" (if it walks likes a duck, quacks like a duck, etc.): ""It looks like phosphorus, it smells like phosphorus and it's burning like phosphorus. That's why I'm calling it phosphorus."