Israel pounds Gaza ahead of ceasefire vote

Israel battered Gaza with new strikes on Saturday, as it was poised to unilaterally halt a 22-day-old war on Hamas that has killed nearly 1 200 Palestinians and left much of the enclave in ruins.

But Hamas vowed that it would fight on if the Israeli security Cabinet orders a unilateral ceasefire, insisting that Israeli troops must withdraw from Gaza as part of a reciprocal truce.

A woman and a child were killed in an Israeli strike on a United Nations-run school in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, where civilians had taken refuge from fierce clashes between Israeli ground troops and Palestinian fighters, medics said.

”This yet again illustrates the tragedy that there is no safe place in Gaza. Not even a UN installation is safe,” Christopher Gunness, a spokesperson for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said. ”There is no place to flee.”

It was at least the fourth Israeli strike on an UNRWA-operated school in Gaza and the UN agency demanded an investigation.

Elsewhere in the territory, a two-year-old baby and three other people were killed as Israel hammered Gaza with about 50 raids on tunnels, rocket launchers and suspected weapons stores including two mosques, medics and the army said.

The raids came ahead of a meeting of the Israeli security Cabinet later on Saturday that is expected to approve an end to the war after the Jewish state won pledges from Washington and Cairo to help prevent arms smuggling into the Islamist-run enclave from Egypt.

Under the terms of the proposal, Israel would silence its guns even without a reciprocal agreement from Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since mid-2007, a senior government official told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.

But Hamas official Osama Hemdan said the Islamists would not accept any such move by Israel.

”This unilateral ceasefire does not foresee a withdrawal” by the Israeli army, said Hemdan, the movement’s Lebanon representative.

”As long as it remains in Gaza, resistance and confrontation will continue,” he said by telephone.

The Israeli official made clear that the army would respond to any Hamas attacks even after a ceasefire order from the security Cabinet.

”If it decides to open fire, we will not hesitate to respond and resume our offensive,” he said.

The security Cabinet meeting comes as the UN’s General Assembly called for an immediate ceasefire to end a war whose stated aim was to halt rocket fire by Gaza militants. Half of the Palestinian dead have been civilians.

”The [Israeli] security Cabinet is expected to vote in favour of a unilateral ceasefire at [Saturday’s] meeting following the signing of the memorandum in Washington and significant progress made in Cairo,” the government official said.

The breakthrough came after Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni signed the deal with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, under which the United States will assist in preventing smuggling into Gaza, and a top envoy returned from talks with officials in Cairo.

Prime Minister Ehud ”Olmert was satisfied with the results of the talks in Cairo, which answered Israel’s basic requirements for a thorough answer to Israel’s demands to halt rocket fire and an agreement on coordination between Israel and Egypt on the opening of the crossings” on the Gaza border, the official added.

Olmert’s support does not necessarily mean that the ceasefire will be approved by the security Cabinet, however, as ministers have been divided over the conduct of the war.

Since Israel unleashed Operation Cast Lead on December 27, at least 1 199 Palestinians, including 410 children, have been killed and 5 300 wounded.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or in rocket strikes. Militants in Gaza have fired more than 700 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel since the start of the war.

Khaled Meshaal, the exiled head of Hamas’s politburo, told Arab leaders meeting in Doha on Friday that the Islamist movement would not accept any ceasefire that did not provide for a full Israeli pull-out and the opening of Gaza’s borders, including into Egypt.

Clamping down on the porous Gaza-Egypt border, where hundreds of underground tunnels form Hamas’s main supply route, has been a key Israeli demand for ending its offensive on Gaza.

After signing the deal in Washington, Livni told Israeli television that smuggling weapons into Gaza was tantamount to firing at Israel.

Rice said she now hoped for a ”ceasefire very, very soon” but could not promise one would be sealed in time for January 20, when President George Bush hands over to his successor, Barack Obama.

The war in Gaza has drawn worldwide protests and raised fears of a humanitarian crisis in the impoverished territory of 1,5-million people, which has been under a crippling Israeli blockade ever since Hamas seized power. — AFP



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