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Officials: Egypt, Hamas closer on Gaza cease-fire

Officials: Egypt, Hamas closer on Gaza cease-fire

Egypt and Hamas have narrowed in on the possible outlines of a deal for a 10-day cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group in Gaza, as the death toll in the war climbed to nearly 950.
Egyptian and Palestinian officials said they were hopeful of sealing Hamas' agreement on a temporary halt in fighting, which would be presented to Israel for its approval soon. But there remain key uncertainties for a longer-term deal under which Gaza's borders would be open and Israeli troops would withdraw.
The officials provided details of the deal on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the Egypt-Hamas talks. But Egyptian officials also expressed public optimism that momentum toward a deal was growing.
"We will keep it under a lid of secrecy until we reach a cease-fire agreement that is followed by several interrelated steps to reach a cease-fire, ensure withdrawal (of the Israelis), open the crossing and secure the return of the monitors," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said.
Hamas official Ghazi Hammad told the British Broadcasting Corp., "I think this kind of agreement can be done now, and I think now there is good progress in Egypt. We hope that now Egypt will contact Israel and talk about all issues."
Israel showed no signs of slowing its bruising 19-day-old offensive against Gaza's Hamas rulers, striking some 60 targets. One airstrike hit an overcrowded cemetery, spreading body parts and rotting flesh over a wide area. The army said the airstrike targeted a weapons cache hidden near the graveyard.
Guerrillas in Lebanon sent rockets crashing into northern Israel on Wednesday for the second time in a week, drawing an Israeli artillery barrage and threatening to drag the Jewish state into a second front.
The rocket fire in the north caused no injuries, but sent residents scurrying to bomb shelters. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and speculation focused on small Palestinian groups. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed guerrilla group that fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006, denied involvement in last week's attack.
The Muslim world has expressed outrage over Israel's Gaza offensive, and in a new condemnation Wednesday, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden urged Muslims to launch a holy war against Israel.
Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a religious opinion, or fatwa, declaring the purchase of any Israeli goods or trade with Israeli companies to be forbidden.
Israel launched the onslaught in Gaza on Dec. 27, seeking to stop the ruling Hamas militant group from firing rockets into southern Israel. The offensive has killed more than 940 Palestinians, half of them civilians, according to Palestinian hospital officials. The toll included 11 Palestinians killed Wednesday, medical officials said.
Thirteen Israelis have also been killed since the offensive began, four by rocket fire from Gaza.
Desperately trying to end the fighting, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon opened a visit to the Mideast on Wednesday urging an immediate halt to the violence.
"My call is (for) an immediate end to violence in Gaza," he said in Cairo after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
"It is intolerable that civilians bear the brunt of this conflict," he said, adding that the "negotiations need to be intensified to provide arrangements and guarantees in order to sustain an endurable cease-fire and calm." Ban is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Thursday. He will also visit Jordan, the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait. His itinerary does not include a stop in Gaza because of the ongoing conflict.
Israeli military officials have said talks in Cairo will determine whether Israel moves closer to a truce with Hamas or widens its offensive to send thousands of reservists into crowded, urban areas where casualties on both sides would likely mount.
Israel had planned to send its lead negotiator, Amos Gilad, to Cairo on Thursday, but his trip was put off because conditions weren't ripe, defense officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the date of his departure has not been set.
When Gilad actually travels, it will be a strong signal of progress. Gilad, a top official at the Israeli Defense Ministry, has so far put off his trip for several days, saying conditions were not yet ripe.
In the truce talks, Hamas has insisted that it would not agree to a cease-fire unless Israel pulls its troops out of the tiny Mediterranean coastal strip and allowed Gaza's borders to the outside world to immediately reopen.
But the temporary cease-fire proposal being discussed in Cairo would allow Israel's military to stay in place and the borders closed during a 10-day period of quiet, the Egyptian and Palestinian officials close to the talks said.
During that time, Egyptian, Turkish and other international mediators would try to negotiate an arrangement for policing Egypt's border with Gaza to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory, the officials said.
This would likely entail some kind of international monitors on the Palestinian side of the border _ but the two sides remained far apart on what nationalities would make up the force, where they would be deployed and what their mission would be. Hamas has so far publicly resisted deploying international monitors and has demanded it be given some role in policing the crossings and borders, but Israel has always rejected any role for Hamas, which it and the United States consider a terrorist group.
Egypt has also rejected any foreign troops on its side of the border, though it says it would accept foreign technical and financial aid to help control the border, which is riddled with smuggling tunnels.
Only after a deal has been reached on border security _ including control of the crossings _ would the crossings be opened and Israel would withdraw its forces from Gaza, the officials said.
That means negotiators potentially would have only 10 days to work out the contentious details or else risk a return to fighting.
Efforts of Arab countries to contain the crisis were riven, meanwhile, with their own divisions. Qatar on Wednesday managed to get enough Arab countries to agree on an emergency summit meeting in its capital of Doha for Friday.
Its efforts succeeded over the strong opposition of Egypt and Saudi Arabia who preferred a meeting a few days later in Kuwait on the sidelines of an economic summit.
Overnight, Israeli warplanes and helicopter gunships pounded a police court in Gaza City, rocket-launching sites, gunmen, weapons-production and storage facilities and about 35 weapons smuggling tunnels, the military said. Later in the day, witnesses in southern Gaza reported air strikes on the house of a rocket squad leader and a militant's car.
Aircraft also struck the Sheikh Radwan cemetery in Gaza City, destroying about 30 graves _ some just recently dug _ and scattering bits of flesh and body parts for yards (meters), residents said.
Maj. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman, said the army targeted a weapons cache next to the cemetery and a nearby rocket-launching site. She said the heavy damage was the result of secondary explosions.
Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of using mosques, schools and other civilian areas to stage attacks or store weapons.
Fireballs and smoke plumes from Israeli bombing have become a common sight in the territory of 1.4 million people, who are trapped because Israel and Egypt have blockaded border crossings ever since the Islamic Hamas overran Gaza in June 2007.
Humanitarian concerns have increased amid the onslaught although some aid is getting through to Gaza during daily three-hour lulls Israel has allowed to let in supplies. A total of 111 truckloads of food and medical supplies were to pass through on Wednesday, the military said.
Palestinian rocket fire has dropped off dramatically since the offensive began. Twelve rockets were fired at Israel on Wednesday, down from as many as 80 a day early in the operation.
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AP correspondents Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Amy Teibel in Jerusalem and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.


Updated : 2021-08-05 19:33 GMT+08:00