Israel bombards Hamas hours before cease-fire vote
Israel's top leadership met Saturday to approve a unilateral cease-fire that would halt the devastating 22-day offensive against the Hamas rulers of Gaza.
The 12-member Security Cabinet is expected to back an Egyptian-brokered proposal for a 10-day cease-fire with no sign of a commitment by Hamas to stop the rocket fire on southern Israel that sparked the conflict.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak indicated Israel's readiness for a cease-fire, saying the country "was very close to achieving its goals and securing them through diplomatic agreements." He spoke during a trip to southern Israel, which has been the target of militant rocket fire.
In the hours leading up to the vote, Israel kept up its bombardment of dozens of Hamas targets in Gaza.
Gaza's Hamas rulers have sent mixed signals on whether the group would reciprocate.
Hamas' exiled leadership vowed to continue the fight against Israel. Osama Hamdan, a top Hamas official based in Lebanon, said the group would not halt its attacks until Israel withdraws its troops from Gaza and ends its blockade of the seaside strip.
"If any vision does not achieve these things, then we will continue in the battle on the ground," he said.
But after weeks of heavy losses, leaders inside Gaza have signaled they are ready for a deal. A Hamas delegation was in Cairo for more truce negotiations.
Palestinian medics say the fighting has killed at least 1,140 Palestinians — roughly half of them civilians — and Israel's bombing campaign caused massive destruction in the Gaza Strip. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, according to the government.
If the truce is approved, fighting would stop immediately for 10 days. Israeli forces would remain in Gaza during that time and the territory's border crossing with Israel and Egypt would remain closed until security arrangements are made to prevent Hamas arms smuggling.
If the cease-fire is approved, it was not clear how Israel would respond to violations of a cease-fire.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni indicated that Israel would renew its offensive if Hamas militants continued to fire rockets at Israel after Israel declared a truce.
"This campaign is not a one-time event," she said in an interview with the Israeli YNet news Web site. "The test will be the day after. That is the test of deterrence."
Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27 to try to halt near-daily Hamas rocket attacks against southern Israel. Its key demand is for guarantees that Hamas halt the smuggling of rockets, explosives and other weapons through the porous Egyptian border.
Under the deal, Egypt would shut down weapons smuggling routes with international help and discussions on opening Gaza's blockaded border crossings — Hamas' key demand — would take place at a later date.
Cabinet minister Shaul Mofaz, who will attend Saturday night's Security Cabinet meeting, said any deal would also require a mechanism for negotiating the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit who was captured by Hamas more than two years ago.
The Israeli vote was set after Israel and the U.S. signed on Friday a "memorandum of understanding" in Washington that calls for expanded intelligence cooperation to prevent Hamas from rearming.
The agreement outlines a framework under which the United States commits detection and surveillance equipment, as well as logistical help and training to Israel, Egypt and other nations to be used in monitoring Gaza's land and sea borders.
Livni, who signed the deal, called it "a vital complement for a cessation of hostility."
The vote comes just days ahead of Barack Obama's inauguration as president on Tuesday.
Egypt has been a key interlocutor in weeks of negotiations to end the assault on Gaza sparked by years of Hamas rocket fire at southern Israel.
"I demand Israel today stop its military operations immediately," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said. "I demand from its leaders an immediate and unconditional cease-fire and I demand from them a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Strip."
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit dismissed the U.S.-Israel agreement Saturday, saying his country would not be bound by its terms.
The U.S. and Israel can "do what they wish with regard to the sea or any other country in Africa, but when it comes to Egyptian land, we are not bound by anything except the safety and national security of the Egyptian people and Egypt's ability to protect its borders," Aboul Gheit told reporters.
The comments by Egyptian officials could indicate frustration over Israeli and American efforts to broker their own deal to stem smuggling into Gaza after weeks of Egyptian mediation for an agreement. They could also be intended to tell the domestic audience that Egypt's role will not be dictated by outside powers. Egypt's cooperation will be critical to prevent arms being smuggled into Gaza for Hamas.
The comments by Egyptian officials could indicate frustration over Israeli and American efforts to broker their own deal to stem smuggling into Gaza after weeks of Egyptian mediation for an agreement. Egypt's cooperation will be critical in efforts to prevent arms being smuggled into Gaza for Hamas.
Israel Radio reported that a truce summit could be held in Egypt as early as Sunday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Israeli leaders in attendance.
Speaking to Lebanon's parliament Saturday, Ban said Hamas must stop rocket attacks on Israel and the Jewish state must immediately end its offensive and withdraw its troops from Gaza.
"We cannot wait for all the details, the mechanisms, to be conclusively negotiated and agreed, while civilians continue to be traumatized, injured or killed," he said. "We have no more time to lose. We demand an immediate cease-fire," said Ban.
In the meantime, there was no slowdown in the offensive. A total of 13 Palestinians were killed in battles throughout Gaza Saturday, Palestinian medics said.
Israeli warplanes dropped bombs during the night on suspected smuggling tunnels in the southern border town of Rafah. The bombs could be heard whistling through the air, shook the ground upon impact and left a dusty haze in the air.
In the northern town of Beit Lahiya, Israeli shells struck a U.N. school where 1,600 people had sought shelter to flee the fighting. One shell scored a direct hit on the top floor of the three-story building, killing two boys, U.N. officials said. An adjacent room was turned into a blackened mess of charred concrete and twisted metal bed frames.
John Ging, the top U.N. official in Gaza, condemned the attack — the latest in a series of Israeli shellings that have struck U.N. installations.
"The question that has to be asked is for all those children and all those innocent people who have been killed in this conflict. Were they war crimes? Were they war crimes that resulted in the deaths of the innocents during this conflict? That question has to be answered," he said.
The Israeli army said it was launching a high-level investigation into the shelling, as well as four other attacks that hit civilian targets, including the U.N. headquarters in Gaza. The army investigation also includes the shelling of a hospital, a media center and the home of a well-known doctor.
An Israeli military spokesman said the investigations would be handled at the command level. He spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.
Previously, Israel has accused Hamas of using schools, mosques, hospitals and residential areas to stage attacks.
The military said its planes struck 50 Hamas locations overnight, including rocket-launching sites, smuggling tunnels, weapons storehouses, bunkers and minefields. Some five rockets were fired into Israel, causing minor damage but no injuries, the army said.
Israeli troops entered a small central Gaza town and nearby housing project, taking over houses and positioning on rooftops. Hamas militants fired assault rifles, mortars and rockets at the Israeli forces in tanks and military vehicles, the sound of clashes audible from Gaza City. Warplanes fired missiles at buildings and nearby farms, witnesses said.
"A shell landed in my bedroom and we are now sitting in the kitchen. We are 17 people here," Jihan Sarsawi, a resident of the housing project, said by telephone. She said residents were trapped in their homes.