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Israel, US eye Gaza border deal

Israel worked to secure foreign guarantees on Friday that arms smuggling to Hamas militants would end under any deal to call off its three-week-old offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni left for talks in Washington, Israel’s main backer, just five days before Barack Obama was due to be inaugurated as United States president.

Analysts saw a possible deadline for the offensive with the departure of the Bush administration, after which Israel may be reluctant to test the support of the new leadership.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on a peace mission to the Middle East, said on Thursday the Israeli government was due to make an important decision on a ceasefire but that it might take ”a few more days”.

Ban also condemned as an ”outrage” an Israeli attack on a UN storage compound in Gaza which destroyed desperately needed food supplies.

Launched on December 27 to counter Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel from the coastal enclave, the Israeli offensive has killed about 1 105 Palestinians and wounded 5 100, the Gaza Health Ministry said. A Palestinian human rights group put the civilian death toll at about 700.

Shelled and besieged from air, ground and sea, the Islamist Hamas on Thursday offered a year-long, renewable truce under which the Jewish state would withdraw its troops within a week and all Gazan’s border crossings would open immediately.

Israel did not immediately address those terms, which were relayed through Egyptian mediators as tanks and troops pushed into Gaza city and the air force killed the interior minister of the Hamas administration.

Despite world outcry over the carnage and damage to media and UN aid facilities, Israel has vowed to fight on until the rocket salvoes stop and measures are imposed to stop Hamas bringing in arms via tunnels from Egypt.

What that might entail is unclear as Cairo rejects Israeli allegations that it has not cracked down on the weapons shipments and has been publicly reluctant to allow international forces to help supervise the sandy 15km frontier.

Israeli warplanes have bombed the border corridor and defence officials hinted troops could move in — though that might clash with Israel’s assertion that, having quit Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, it has no plan to return. Hoping to bring a truce closer, the United States told Israel it would be prepared to offer security guarantees.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told him ”the United States would be prepared to assist in solving the issue of smuggling”.

Israel Radio said the Olmert government would also send a defence envoy, Amos Gilad, to Egypt to discuss the Gaza border.

A senior Western diplomat said Israel appeared to be seeking last-minute gains on the ground before a truce could be imposed.

”It’s a classic Israeli strategy,” the diplomat said.

Israelis also face a February 10 election which will pit Livni, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu against one another, straining the cross-partisan support that the offensive has enjoyed so far.

Israel on Thursday killed Hamas Interior Minister Saeed Seyyam with an air strike on a house in Jabalya refugee camp.

Seyyam, who had overseen 13 000 Hamas police and security men, died along with his son, brother and half a dozen others.

Israeli attacks also caused extensive damage to a hospital, a TV office, and a storage compound used by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which tends to the refugees who make up more than half of Gaza’s 1,5-million Palestinians.

”We’ve lost all our food and all our medicine to this fire. We need the shelling to stop,” an UNRWA worker said.

Olmert apologised but said troops had been responding to shots from gunmen at the compound.

About 25 rockets fired from Gaza hit southern Israel on Thursday, wounding six people. Such salvoes have killed three Israeli civilians and a soldier during the offensive. Nine troops have died during fighting centred in northern Gaza.

Hamas’s Damascus-based leader Khaled Meshaal reiterated his group’s demands: ”First, the aggression must stop; second, the Israeli forces must withdraw from Gaza … immediately, of course; thirdly, the siege must be lifted and fourth we want all crossing-points reopened, first of which is Rafah [Egypt].”

Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian election but was shunned by the West for its hostility to Israel. The Islamists took control of Gaza a year later after driving out the secular Fatah faction of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. – Reuters

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