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Israel weighs unilateral Gaza ceasefire

Israeli warplanes returned to the attack on the Gaza Strip before first light on Saturday as leaders of the Jewish state weighed a unilateral ceasefire.

Political sources said a decision could come by evening. The government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may declare a halt to the three-week-old offensive without concluding any deal with Hamas-led militants who control Gaza, they said.

After a relatively quiet night of only sporadic gunfire, the sound of jet aircraft was followed by several heavy explosions flashing in the night from unseen targets, mainly to the south of the city of Gaza.

More than 1 150 Palestinians have been killed and 5 100 wounded since Israel began attacking Gaza with an air blitz on December 27, then moved in with ground forces a week later.

A large majority of the dead were civilians.

Ten Israeli soldiers have died in the fighting and three Israeli civilians have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza.

Olmert called a Saturday night security Cabinet session to decide on a ceasefire, which could come less than 72 hours before the inauguration of Barack Obama as United States president.

Some say Israel wants to avoid casting a cloud on an historic day for its main ally. Israeli public support for the offensive has been almost total, but international calls for an end to the bloodshed are mounting.

An overwhelming majority of states at the United Nations General Assembly called on Friday for an immediate, durable ceasefire. Diplomats said it presented a cohesive, moderate world viewpoint that would strengthen Egyptian mediating efforts.

The unending pain of Gaza civilians is also harrowing.

Israeli television on Friday broadcast desperate cries for help from a Palestinian doctor whose his children had just been killed in an Israeli attack.

”I want to know why they were killed, who gave the order?” Izz el-Deen Aboul Aishhe cried in a voice shaking with emotion.

Troops later helped the family’s survivors.

No need for deal?
Dismissing notions of ”proportionate” response, Israel struck on December 27 with a ”shock and awe” night of bombing and has used devastating firepower every day since to stop militants firing rockets at Israel civilians in southern cities.

The rockets have tapered off but not ceased. On Friday at least 15 rockets and mortar shells hit Israel, wounding five.

Israeli strikes on Friday killed 30 Gazans, including an Islamic Jihad commander in southern Khan Younis. Israeli tank fire hit the home of a Hamas militant, killing his wife and five children. The militant was not there at the time.

About 45 000 Gazans fleeing the fighting have taken refuge in UN-run schools in the enclave, UN officials said.

Israeli tank fire killed two boys at a UN-run school in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, a UN official said.

An Israeli army spokesperson said he was checking the report.

Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesperson for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said two brothers had been killed and 14 people had been wounded, including the boys’ mother, when Israeli tank fire hit a school run by UNRWA in the northern town of Beit Lahiya.

Palestinian medics had earlier put the death toll at six.
Israeli sources said Egyptian mediation with Hamas was not progressing. But Israel may believe it has now ”taught Hamas a lesson”, as Olmert described its aim, and prefer to simply stop rather than give Hamas the satisfaction of a negotiated deal.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, hoping to replace Olmert as prime minister when Israel votes on February 11, said an on Friday that an end to the war ”doesn’t have to be in agreement with Hamas but rather in arrangements against Hamas”.

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on Friday called Israel’s ceasefire terms unacceptable. Demanding an end to the punitive Israeli blockade of Gaza, he said Hamas would fight on.

Hamas negotiators, however, were due to meet the Egyptians on Saturday to discuss Israel’s response to their conditions.

Hamas offers a one-year, renewable truce on condition that all Israeli forces withdraw within a week and that all the border crossings with Israel and Egypt are opened.

Except for limited humanitarian supplies, the crossings have been all but closed by an Israeli-led blockade since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 from Palestinian factions it had defeated in a parliamentary election the previous year. — Reuters

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