Saturday, January 17, 2009
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to announce a conditional cease-fire within hours, though the Israel has no immediate plans to withdraw troops from Gaza.
The cease-fire likely will entail the end of Israeli attacks on Hamas now that the militant Palestinian group appears to have been disabled to the point that there is less of a threat of rocket attacks on southern Israel.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Saturday that a unilateral cease-fire should be accompanied by a timetable for withdrawal, and a Hamas spokesman said the group would not stop fighting until Israel is out of Gaza.
As the world waited Saturday for word of a cease-fire vote in the Israeli Security Cabinent, Israeli forces kept up the country's punishing three-week-long campaign by pounding dozens of Hamas targets as the army kept up pressure on the Islamic militant group.
The military said it struck some 50 Hamas targets. But one shelling attack struck a U.N. school packed with refugees fleeing the fighting, killing two Palestinians and drawing a sharp condemnation from the United Nations. Israel had no comment on the incident, the latest in a string of attacks to hit a U.N. installation.
Israel was pressing ahead with its offensive hours before a vote by its leaders late Saturday on whether to accept an Egyptian-brokered truce.
A senior Israeli official said Saturday that Israel plans to halt its three-week-old Gaza offensive because it has achieved its goals, Reuters reported.
"The goal is to announce, subject to the approval of the cabinet, a suspension of military activities because we believe our goals have been attained," the official, who asked not to be named, said.
Olmert is expected to speak at 3 p.m. EST.
The vote follows Friday's signing of a "memorandum of understanding" in Washington between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that calls for expanded intelligence cooperation to prevent Hamas from rearming. Livni called the deal, reached on the final working day of the Bush administration, "a vital complement for a cessation of hostility."
Israel's 12-member Security Cabinet was expected to approve the Egyptian proposal, under which fighting would stop immediately for 10 days. Israeli forces would remain in Gaza and the territory's border crossings with Israel and Egypt would remain closed until security arrangements are made to prevent Hamas arms smuggling.
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev saying he was hopeful that Israel is "entering the endgame" on its Gaza offensive.
A "sustained and durable" stop to Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel was near, Regev said. If approved, a truce summit would follow in Cairo with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Under the deal, Egypt would shut down weapons smuggling routes with international help and discussions on opening Gaza's blockaded border crossings — Hamas' key demand — would take place at a later date. It remains unclear whether Hamas supports the proposal.
The U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a non-binding resolution demanding an "immediate and durable and fully respected cease fire" in Gaza on Friday night, the Jerusalem Post reported.
The U.S., Israel, Nauru and Venezuela voting against the resolution, because they hoped for a stronger statement.
Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27 to try to halt near-daily Hamas rocket attacks against southern Israel. Palestinian medics say the fighting has killed at least 1,140 Palestinians — roughly half of them civilians — and Israel's bombing campaign caused massive destruction in the Gaza Strip. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, four by rocket fire and nine in ground battles in Gaza, according to the government.
Israel Radio reported that a truce summit could be held in Cairo as early as Sunday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Israeli leaders in attendance.
In the meantime, there was no slowdown in the offensive. A total of 11 Palestinians were killed in battles throughout Gaza Saturday, Palestinian medics said.
Israeli warplanes dropped bombs throughout the night on suspected smuggling tunnels in the southern border town of Rafah. The bombs could be heard whistling through the air, shook the ground upon impact and left a dusty haze in the air.
In the northern town of Beit Lahiya, an Israeli shell struck a U.N. school where 1,600 people had sought shelter to flee the fighting, said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.
He said several shells struck the school compound, including a direct hit on the top floor of the building. The shell killed two boys, and turned a room on the building's into a blackened mess of charred concrete and twisted metal bed frames. Near Gaza City, Palestinian officials said three more civilians were killed by a naval shell, while a militant was killed in an airstrike.
Gunness condemned the school attack, noting the U.N. has given Israel the coordinates of all its operations in Gaza to avoid such violence. "There have to be investigations to see if war crimes have been committed," he said.
The Israeli military had no immediate comment, saying the matter was still under investigation. But in similar instances, including an attack that heavily damaged the U.N. headquarters in Gaza earlier this week, Israel has accused Hamas militants of staging attacks from U.N. and other civilian buildings.
The military said its planes struck 50 Hamas locations overnight, including rocket-launching sites, smuggling tunnels, weapons storehouses, bunkers and minefields. Some five rockets were fired into Israel, causing minor damage but no injuries, the army said.
Israeli troops entered a small central Gaza town and nearby housing project, taking over houses and positioning on rooftops. Hamas militants fired assault rifles, mortars and rockets at the Israeli forces in tanks and military vehicles, the sound of clashes audible from Gaza City. Warplanes fired missiles at buildings and nearby farms, witnesses said.
"A shell landed in my bedroom and we are now sitting in the kitchen. We are 17 people here," said Jihan Sarsawi, a resident of the housing project. Speaking by telephone, she said residents were trapped in their homes.
The violence followed Israeli envoy Amos Gilad's journey to Cairo on Friday. He returned to report "substantial progress" in truce talks with Egyptian mediators, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office announced. The Israeli vote comes ahead of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration on Tuesday, and Israeli elections next month.
Hamas has given mixed signals about whether it would accept the cease-fire proposal. In Turkey, a spokesman for the movement, Sami Abu Zuhri, said militants would keep fighting. Hamas "will not bow to invading forces, will not raise the white flag," he said.
A Hamas official said Saturday the group will continue fighting against Israel if none of its demands for a cease-fire are met.
Apparently reacting to reports that Israel could call off its offensive and declare a unilateral cease-fire without considering Hamas demands, Beirut-based Osama Hamdan said fighting would continue.
"Today, the movement's delegation arrives in Cairo. To be clear, we have nothing new to offer. We are not going to go back to the first point in the discussions and dialogue. Either we hear what we want or the result will be continuing the confrontation on the ground," said Hamdan, who is close to movement leader Khaled Mashaal.
He added that for Israel to call a unilateral ceasefire while negotiations are underway in Cairo undermines the mediators, a reference to Egypt that has been promoting its own initiative to end the fighting and resolve the long-running crisis.
A Hamas delegation was set to arrive in Cairo Saturday amid the frenzied international diplomacy to end 22 days of fighting.
But after weeks of heavy losses, leaders inside Gaza have signaled they are ready for a deal. A Hamas delegation was headed to Cairo on Saturday for more negotiations.
"Our movement is a main player and it cannot be ignored," said Ghazi Hamad, a Gaza-based Hamas official.
Hamas, which overtook the Gaza Strip in a violent coup in June 2007, has demanded an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the opening of blockaded border crossings.
In an interview with the Israeli YNet news Web site, Livni indicated that Israel would renew its offensive if Hamas militants continued to fire rockets at Israel even after a truce agreement was reached.
"This campaign is not a one-time event," she said. "The test will be the day after. That is the test of deterrence."
Speaking in Washington, she said the deal with the U.S. was meant "to complement Egyptian actions and to end of the flow of weapons to Gaza."
The agreement outlines a framework under which the United States commits detection and surveillance equipment, as well as logistical help and training to Israel, Egypt and other nations to be used in monitoring Gaza's land and sea borders.
Earlier, Rice said she hoped European countries would work out similar bilateral agreements with Israel.
In Gaza, residents said they would welcome an end to the fighting but expressed skepticism a cease-fire can hold.
"Everybody wants the world to return to what it was. But I think it's empty words," said Ghadir Mohammed, who was forced to flee her Gaza City home because of the fighting. "Let's assume if Hamas fires a rocket, will they be quiet about it? Israel isn't the kind to be quiet."
A resident of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, which has been targeted by Hamas rockets, said the army needed to be sure there would be quiet in southern Israel before stopping the fight.
"For eight years, they have been shooting at us," said Yigal Hakmon, manager of a convenience store. "We can't stop in the middle. We have to finish. We have to kill all the Hamas people."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jan. 17: An Israeli army mobile artillery piece fires towards targets in the Gaza Strip, from the Israel side of the border with Gaza
Click to view image: '14bfc42bc270-2_68_011708_gaza2_320.jpg'
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