Israelis, Hamas work on ceasefire in Gaza


Gaza City/Tel Aviv : Top Israeli diplomats headed for Washington and again to Cairo to work out details of a truce in Gaza as fighting Friday took the Palestinian death toll to about 1,100.

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As Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni left Thursday night for the US to sign an agreement on joint intelligence cooperation against weapons smuggling to Gaza, another senior official, Amos Gilad, returned to Egypt where he had heard Hamas’ position on an Egyptian ceasefire initiative Thursday.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who spent the night in Jerusalem, was to travel to the nearby West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian caretaker Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas.

On returning Thursday night Gilad headed to Jerusalem to brief caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Livni on what he had heard in Cairo.

Hamas announced earlier this week that it had accepted the initiative in principle with certain reservations.

The Dubai-based al-Arabiya news channel reported that Hamas accepted “a one-year-long renewable ceasefire on the condition that Israeli troops withdraw from the Gaza Strip within five to seven days”.

Al-Arabiya quoted diplomatic sources as saying that the Islamist group also requested opening all crossings with “international guarantees” that they would remain opened.

On Thursday morning, Hamas’ deputy political leader, Moussa Abu Marzouq, told the same news channel by telephone from Damascus that the group may accept the Egyptian ceasefire plan as the basis for a temporary halt to fighting in Gaza. “We are now awaiting the response of the other side.”

In Gaza, at least 1,077 Palestinian have been killed and more than 5,000 injured in the Israeli attacks during the past 20 days.

The Israeli Ha’aretz daily said it had obtained a copy of the Egyptian initiative and said it detailed three points:

First, Israel and Hamas will agree to an immediate, time-limited cease-fire, during which humanitarian aid is to enter Gaza, and Egypt will lead indirect negotiations on a longer-term truce;

Second, the long-term truce must include guarantees on border security – an Israeli demand – and an end to the economic blockade of Gaza – a Hamas demand;

Third, Hamas and its bitter rival, Abbas’ Fatah party, should resume reconciliation talks that would eventually end the split between the Hamas-run Gaza and the Fatah-run West Bank.

Unconfirmed reports late Thursday suggested a short-term halt to hostilities in Gaza could start within 72 hours. However, some significant differences remain.

The stepped-up diplomacy came amid the worst day of fighting in Gaza Thursday with Israeli forces shelling a UN compound, killing one of Hamas’ top three leaders in Gaza, and making the deepest advance into Gaza City yet.

One wing of a hospital was also on fire, and two high rises housing international media outlets were hit.

The fighting continued also Friday with the Israel Air Force attacking another 40 targets overnight and the ground troops continuing to take on militants in Gaza City neighbourhoods, but residents said Friday morning was relatively quiet.

Thirteen Israelis, including three civilians, have also been killed since Israel launched the offensive Dec 27.