Israel, Hamas briefly hold fire to allow Gaza aid

Hundreds of embattled Palestinians ventured outside to shop for food on Wednesday during a three-hour Gaza truce, a first step towards an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire under discussion by Israel and Hamas.

”Food and milk — what else can we hope for in three hours,” said Ahmed Abu Kamel, a father of six who lives near the city of Gaza. ”We want it all to end.”

Violence resumed in the area soon after the 1pm to 4pm truce expired, and Palestinians returned to the precarious safety of their home after stocking up on food and visiting family and friends.

Israel said it would cease attacks in the Gaza Strip during those hours every day to ease the flow of aid to the Hamas-run territory’s 1,5-million residents.

A day after Israeli shelling killed 42 Palestinians at a United Nations-run Gaza school, Israel said it viewed ”positively” talks with Cairo over a wider ceasefire plan promoted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French leader Nicolas Sarkozy.

”We welcome the French-Egyptian initiative. We want to see it succeed,” said Mark Regev, spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose security Cabinet decided to delay a decision on expanding a 12-day-old Gaza offensive.

Israel wants a ceasefire deal to include a specialised international force to search out and destroy tunnels along the border between Gaza and Egypt to prevent Hamas from rearming and firing more rockets at Israeli towns.

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 Mubarak and were debating the proposal.

”Aggression must stop, the siege must be lifted and the Zionist forces must pull out, and then we can talk about other issues, including calm and rockets,” said Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum.

In fresh fighting, at least 12 Palestinians were killed by Israeli attacks, medical workers said. At least 15 Hamas rockets hit southern Israel, causing no casualties.

The total Palestinian death toll reached 650, medical officials said. Israel says it killed dozens of militants this week in the offensive it launched on December 27 with the declared aim of silencing rocket salvoes.

According to UN figures, more than a quarter of the Palestinian dead are civilians. A Palestinian human rights group put the figure at 40%. Seven Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed.

The United Nations called for an inquiry into Israel’s deadly shelling of the UN school in Jabalya refugee camp on Tuesday. Israel said Hamas militants at the school had fired rockets. The UN said there were no gunmen on the premises.

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.

Border security
Israeli government sources said Egypt was seeking an initial 48-hour ceasefire, 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 ceasefire agreement completed first.

Javier Solana, of the European Union, said by telephone from Tel Aviv that the EU was prepared to help Egypt prevent arms smuggling along its border with the Gaza Strip as part of a ceasefire with Israel.

”Today we have the will, today we have the technology, today we have the means … to prevent that smuggling of weapons takes place,” he said, but played down the need for foreign ground forces.

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 US allies in the Arab world, have been pushing hard for Israel to cease fire.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed the Mubarak proposal and said a ”sustainable” ceasefire 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.

While it ordered a three-hour-long lull in ”offensive” military operations to let in aid, Israel also considered entering a third stage of its air and ground offensive — a deep push into Gaza’s cities and refugee camps.

But an Israeli official, citing the Egyptian and French ceasefire efforts, said Olmert’s security Cabinet deferred voting on the urban warfare plan to an undisclosed date.

Fierce combat in Gaza’s narrow alleyways and streets, leading to heavy casualties on both sides, would hold political risks for Israel’s leaders ahead of a February 10 national election. — Reuters

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