Israel pounds Gaza: View the photo gallery
Israel struck fresh targets on Thursday and waged street battles in Gaza as the international community stepped up efforts to broker a truce to a 20-day-old war that has claimed more than 1 000 lives.
With United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon in the region to seek an end to the conflict, diplomats said Hamas has accepted an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, although the Islamists merely indicated support for its ”broad outlines”.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniya spelled out his conditions for a ceasefire in an article published on Thursday in Britain’s Independent newspaper, appealing to Westerners to press for an end to Israel’s military onslaught.
”Israel must end its criminal war and slaughter of our people, lift completely and unconditionally its illegal siege of the Gaza Strip, open all our border crossings and completely withdraw from Gaza,” Haniya wrote.
”After this we would consider future options,” added the leader of the Palestinian movement that rules Gaza.
The head of Gaza’s emergency services, Moawiya Hassanein, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) 1 038 people have been killed in the Hamas-run territory while a further 4 850 people have been wounded since the December 27 launch of Operation Cast Lead.
Israeli warplanes blasted Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, killing at least 16 people including a 13-year-old boy in night-time bombing raids across the territory that also injured five people at a Rafah mosque.
The Israeli military said the air force struck nine rocket launch pads and three smuggling tunnels as they pushed on with their bid to prevent the Islamists from firing rockets and missiles across the border.
On Wednesday, a total of 15 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel from Gaza, the army said, a fraction of those fired at the start of the war on December 27.
A senior Israeli defence official told AFP that the war, which has killed about 400 civilians and has sparked outrage across the Muslim world, could well continue until the January 20 inauguration of United States president-elect Barack Obama.
”Israel is still waiting for guarantees on solving the issue of weapon smuggling and things are moving in Cairo,” he said on condition of anonymity.
”Nevertheless, Israel is not feeling any pressure at this point to end the operation,” he added.
Hamas has remained defiant throughout the campaign, with Haniya insisting earlier this week it was nearing victory over the Jewish state.
But a Gaza-based leader of the Islamist group said after talks with officials in Cairo that it did not reject the ”broad outlines” of an Egyptian-brokered truce plan, without accepting the plan outright.
”President [Hosni] Mubarak’s vision is the only one that was proposed, we don’t ask for any amendment to its broad outlines,” Salah al-Bardawil told journalists in Cairo.
He said Hamas has ”presented to the Egyptian leadership our detailed vision”, despite the fact Egyptian and Spanish diplomats said Hamas had accepted the plan.
The Islamists’ vision is to be put to senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad when he visits Cairo to discuss the initiative on Thursday, when diplomatic efforts are to mount for a ceasefire.
These include emergency sessions of the UN General Assembly and Gulf Cooperation Council, and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s meetings with UN Secretary General Ban and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Israel, whose death toll from the conflict is 13, has made ending the offensive conditional on a complete halt to rocket fire against the south of the country and stemming arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.
But a senior US State Department said Hamas has yet to meet the terms for a ceasefire.
”It’s not a done deal yet. They’re still working it. There are a number of Hamas conditions that are having to be dealt with,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity after the White House voiced scepticism about Hamas.
In Cairo, Ban again pleaded for ”an immediate and durable ceasefire” at the start of a trip that will take him to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and an Arab League summit next Monday in Kuwait.
Germany’s Steinmeier, who arrived in Tel Aviv on Thursday morning, praised Egypt’s peace-brokering in a joint statement with French counterpart Bernard Kouchner.
”Important progress has been made over the past days in identifying workable solutions,” they said.
But Bolivian President Evo Morales said his country had severed ties with Israel to protest the Gaza war, a move matched by Venezuela, whose President, Hugo Chávez, had already expelled Israel’s ambassador on January 6.
In a recording posted on the internet entitled ”A Call for Jihad to Stop Aggression against Gaza,” al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden called for a holy war to restore ”Jerusalem and Palestine”.
The offensive has sparked widespread concern about a humanitarian crisis breaking out in one of the world’s most densely populated places where the vast majority of the 1,5-million population depends on foreign aid. — AFP