The Cable

Gaza Cease-Fire Collapses

This story has been updated.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry went to sleep Thursday night having achieved a rare Middle East diplomatic victory: Israel and Hamas had agreed to silence their guns and rockets for 72 hours to create time for Palestinians to bury their dead and for diplomats to broker a more durable peace. But like so much else in the Middle East, it turned out to be a bad dream.

By the time American policymakers in Washington, D.C., had awoken Friday morning, Aug. 1, the cease-fire had collapsed amid reports that Palestinian militants had killed two Israeli soldiers and had captured a third during an Israeli search of a militant tunnel in the Rafah neighborhood of the Gaza Strip. Israel followed up by bombarding the area, while Hamas continued to fire rockets and mortars into Israel.

Each side cast blame on the other, with Israel charging Hamas with violating the terms of the cease-fire. One Hamas official claimed that Israel provoked the breakdown and that the Israeli soldier had been captured before the cease-fire had gone into effect.

But the resumption of fighting underscored the fragility of the cease-fire, which permitted Israel to continue operations aimed at destroying a vast network of underground tunnels that has become a vital component of Hamas's military strategy of bringing the war to Israel's doorstep.

Israel's spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said on Twitter Friday morning that an Israeli soldier, 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, had been captured and dragged into a tunnel.

"If our suspicions about today's events are accurate, Hamas took advantage of the latest ceasefire in order to kidnap an IDF [Israel Defense Forces] soldier," according to a tweet from his account. "We are conducting extensive searches in S. Gaza in order to find a missing IDF soldier."

In a telephone conversation with Kerry, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Hamas for having "unilaterally and grossly violated the humanitarian ceasefire," his spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, tweeted Thursday.

A senior member of Hamas's political wing, Moussa Abu Marzouk,  said that the soldier was captured before the cease-fire took hold, according to the New York Times.

Facing mounting international pressure to halt the fighting in Gaza, Israel and Hamas agreed to observe a U.N.-brokered 72-hour "humanitarian cease-fire" to give Palestinian civilians a respite from weeks of relentless violence to bury their dead, tend to their wounded, and stock up on food and water.

The agreement -- which was announced jointly Thursday night by Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon -- was also intended to allow Egyptian-hosted talks between Palestinian and Israeli officials to resume this weekend in Cairo to reach a more "durable cease-fire," according to the joint statement.

In the meantime, Israeli forces could stay put in Gaza, a key Israeli demand. Netanyahu activated 16,000 more reserve troops Thursday and told his people in a televised address that the offensive wouldn't stop until all of the tunnels Hamas has been using to sneak into Israel were destroyed.

"Israel will be able to continue its defensive operations for those tunnels that are behind its lines, and the Palestinians will be able to receive food, medicine, and additional humanitarian assistance, as well as to be able to tend to their wounded, bury their dead, be able to in safe areas travel to their homes, and take advantage of the absence -- hopefully, hopefully -- of violence for these 72 hours," Kerry said shortly after the deal was announced.

The pact came one day after the U.N. chief accused Israel of engaging in "reprehensible" conduct for allegedly shelling a U.N. shelter housing 3,000 Palestinian civilians. At least 16 people were killed in the strike. Meanwhile, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, on Thursday condemned Israel for shelling the U.N. facility, saying that attacks on relief facilities constitute war crimes.

"Six U.N. schools have now been hit, including another deadly strike on 24 July that also killed civilians," Pillay said Thursday. "If civilians cannot take refuge in U.N. schools, where can they be safe? They leave their homes to seek safety -- and are then subjected to attack in the places they flee to. This is a grotesque situation."

She also condemned Palestinian militants' "indiscriminate firing of rockets" into Israeli towns and said that military assets should not be located in densely populated areas. Since the fighting began, she said, armed Palestinians have fired more than 3,500 rockets and 800 mortars into Israel. "The launching of indiscriminate attacks is a war crime," she said.

Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, on Thursday told reporters at the United Nations, where the Security Council convened an emergency session on Gaza's humanitarian crisis, that the Israeli government was investigating the incident. But he insisted that "no Israeli soldier intentionally targets civilians."

"Israel does not shy away from accepting responsibility" for its actions, he added. The international community is "quick to condemn Israel but slow to condemn Hamas for its war crimes."

Since fighting began on July 8, more than 1,200 Palestinians, including 850 civilians, have been killed, as well as 60 Israelis, including 57 soldiers and three civilians, according to Pillay.

Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, brokered the cease-fire agreement. But the United States, Egypt, Qatar, and other key powers have also been working behind the scenes to secure the deal. The negotiations have been slowed by a sharp divide between Egypt, which tacitly supports the Israeli offensive and is mounting one of its own against Hamas, and Qatar, one of the armed group's largest political and financial supporters.

"I applaud the efforts of Secretary Kerry and partners such as Egypt who should be congratulated for all they have done to bring an end to this humanitarian crisis," Britain's foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, said before the deal unraveled. "We should now redouble our efforts and leave no stone unturned, to ensure this is a lasting and durable ceasefire to make way for substantial discussion to resolve the underlying issues on both sides."

Israel has insisted that any agreement require the silencing of Palestinian rockets, the disarmament of Palestinian armed groups, and the destruction of a vast network of tunnels used by Palestinian militants to infiltrate Israel.

Serry has been pushing both Israelis and Palestinians to build on this weekend's temporary cease-fire to reach agreement on a plan that would open Gaza's long-shuttered border crossings into Egypt and Israel and establish a humanitarian corridor to permit the delivery of basic goods -- including food, medicines, and building supplies -- into Gaza. Another idea under consideration by Israel and other key powers involves the adoption of a new measure inspired by Resolution 1701, which formally ended the 2006 war in southern Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shiite militia. The new resolution would call for extending the Palestinian Authority's administration over Gaza and disarming armed Palestinian fighters, including Hamas. The plan -- which was first outlined by Haaretz -- would require some sort of international monitoring force to verify compliance with the terms. The newspaper reported Wednesday that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has urged Netanyahu to push for such a resolution in the Security Council.

But one U.N.-based diplomat said that negotiators will have to address one uncomfortable reality. "What is in it for Hamas?" the diplomat said. Negotiators, the diplomat said, will have to include incentives, including the payment of salaries to Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip's government.

"This is not a time for congratulations and joy, or anything except a serious determination, a focus by everybody to try to figure out the road ahead," Kerry said. "This is a respite. It's a moment of opportunity, not an end; it's not a solution. It's the opportunity to find the solution."

AFP/Getty Images/ pool photo

The Cable

Congress Passes VA Overhaul

This post has been updated.

In a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation, Congress approved a $16.3 billion plan to overhaul the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has been dogged by allegations of mismanagement and neglect, including that it allowed veterans waiting for medical care to die. The Senate approved the bill in a 91-3 vote on Thursday, one day after the House version passed by a vote of 420 to 5. The bill now goes to the president's desk where it is expected to be signed into law.

"We are now just one signature away from making government more accountable and providing veterans with real choice in their health care decisions," said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "I am confident the president will do the right thing and sign this bill into law."

House and Senate negotiators worked over the weekend to iron out differences between their chambers' competing bills. After seemingly reaching an impasse, Miller and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said they struck a deal Sunday evening. The compromise legislation would give the VA $5 billion to hire more medical staff and allot $10 billion for veterans to receive health care at private clinics. It also would give the VA $1.5 billion to lease facilities around the country so that department doctors can reduce the backlog of patients awaiting care. VA facilities have been overwhelmed by an influx of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Veterans groups offered broad support for the bill upon passage. "Today is a great - and long overdue - day for America's veterans and their families," said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. "After a long and difficult fight, Concerned Veterans for America is proud to say that the two transformational principles of reform we fought for from day one-accountability and choice-are in this bill."

The bill comes six months after reports, led by CNN, surfaced that at least 40 veterans had died while waiting for care at a VA facility in Arizona. The scandal prompted an internal VA report that found systemic problems at VA facilities around the country, resulting in patients waiting for weeks and sometimes months to receive care. The widespread fury on Capitol Hill led to the ouster of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned in May. On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald, the former chief executive of Procter & Gamble, as his successor. 

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