Truce plan floated after Gaza school deaths
Reuters - 37 minutes ago
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA - Israel and Hamas studied an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip Wednesday that won immediate backing from the United States and Europe, hours after Israeli shells killed 42 Palestinians at a U.N. school.
However, Israeli officials also said ministers would discuss a major escalation of their 12-day-old offensive that would push troops deep inside Gaza's cities and refugee camps in their bid to end rocket salvoes into Israel by Islamist militants.
In fresh fighting, 11 Palestinians were killed by Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip, medical workers said. At least eight Hamas rockets hit southern Israeli, causing no casualties.
An Israeli army source said Israel planned to halt military operations from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. every day, starting Wednesday, near the city of Gaza to allow aid to flow through a "humanitarian corridor" it is setting up.
Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip said Israel informed them of the move to allow shops to open and for funerals to take place. Aid agencies have complained of a mounting crisis for the 1.5 million Palestinians in the Hamas-ruled territory.
Israeli government sources said ministers were likely to defer a vote on starting an urban warfare stage of the offensive, which began with air strikes on December 27 and moved into a ground offensive last Saturday, and give Egypt's cease-fire efforts a chance.
A Palestinian official said the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers, who want an end to Israel's blockade of the enclave, had been briefed in Egypt by President Hosni Mubarak and were debating the proposal.
More than 600 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting.
In New York, where the U.N. Security Council met on Gaza, Israeli Ambassador Gabriela Shalev told reporters: "I am sure that will be considered and you will find out whether it was accepted. But we take it very, very seriously."
Israel, which has lost seven soldiers and three civilians in the conflict, wants any end to hostilities to satisfy its demand that Hamas will no longer be able to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip through tunnels under the southern border with Egypt.
On a frequency used by a radio station in the Gaza Strip, an announcer, saying he was speaking on behalf of the Israeli army, warned residents of the southern town of Rafah to leave their homes by 8 a.m. Thursday.
He said the Israeli military would destroy a number of homes it believes are built on top of shafts leading to tunnels.
Mubarak made his cease-fire call at a joint news conference in Egypt with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He gave little detail, but diplomats have described a process that would focus on bringing in foreign forces to seal the Egypt-Gaza border against Hamas arms smugglers while easing other trade routes.
Israeli government sources said Egypt was seeking an initial 48-hour cease-fire, during which it would put the finishing touches to its plan. Israel, the sources said, opposed a preliminary truce and wanted all the details of a cease-fire agreement completed first.
Sarkozy, winding up a two-day tour of the Middle East, said: "I am confident the Israeli authorities' reaction will make it possible to consider putting an end to the operation in Gaza."
With Washington in a transition period ahead of the January 20 inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, France and its European partners, with backing from U.S. allies in the Arab world, have been pushing hard for Israel to cease fire.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed the Mubarak proposal and said a "sustainable" cease-fire should involve both closing off Hamas's ability to rearm and easing the lives of the 1.5 million people of the Gaza Strip by reopening trade routes.
"We need urgently to conclude a cease-fire that can endure and that can bring real security," Rice told the Security Council.
Arab and widespread international anger mounted Tuesday when Israel acknowledged hitting a U.N. school where hundreds of people were taking refuge. Medics said 42 people were killed.
Israel accused Hamas of using civilians as "human shields" and said troops had been returning mortar fire from the school.
Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that runs the institution in Jabalya refugee camp, said: "We're 99.9 percent sure, after an initial investigation, that there were no militants at the school."
Tuesday alone, 77 Palestinian civilians were killed. The Palestinian death toll stands at 642, according to local medical officials. Israel says it has killed dozens of militants this week.
An aide said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a bitter foe of Hamas, ordered officials to look into taking Israel to international courts over the deaths at the school in Jabalya.
A U.N. spokesman said the world body wanted an inquiry into both the incident and Israel's allegations about militants firing from schools.
The deaths in the school prompted Obama to break his silence on the Gaza offensive and to say the loss of life among civilians was "a source of deep concern" for him.
Al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri called on the Internet for Muslims to "hit the interests of the Zionists and Crusaders wherever and in whichever way you can."
Washington's allies in Arab governments have condemned the Israeli assault, which has contributed to rising oil prices.
Hamas, which has rebuffed Western demands to recognise Israel, end violence and accept existing interim peace deals, has demanded a lifting of the blockade of Gaza in any truce. It seized the territory in 2007, 18 months after it won a parliamentary election.
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