- - Monday, November 19, 2012

JERUSALEM — Diplomats scrambled Monday to cobble together a cease-fire in the 6-day-old conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, as both sides continued to pound each other with deadly airstrikes and rockets.

An Israeli warplane killed at least one senior Palestinian militant and wounded others in a missile strike on a media building in Gaza City as Hamas fired 75 rockets into Israel, where its Iron Dome anti-missile system shot down 20 of them. One hit an empty school, and the others caused no reported injuries.

Later in the day, the Israeli government convened a Cabinet meeting to discuss a proposal presented by Egypt, which has been mediating indirect talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials.

President Obama talked by phone with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Speaking from Cambodia, where he is attending a summit of Asian and Pacific leaders, Mr. Obama emphasized the need for Hamas militants in Gaza to stop firing rockets into Israeli towns and cities, the White House said. He also discussed ways to de-escalate the violence and expressed regret for the deaths on both sides of the conflict.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in the region for talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and a delegation of Arab foreign ministers are due in Gaza on Tuesday.

“Negotiations continue, and I hope that soon we will put a stop to the mutual violence,” said Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Qandil in Cairo, where the indirect talks are being held. “I think we are close.”

Dispute among Palestinians

Despite Mr. Qandil’s upbeat tone, sources close to the talks said considerable differences remain, not just between the Palestinians and Israelis but also within the Palestinian camp — between Hamas, the dominant force in Gaza, and the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, the most militant.

Islamic Jihad leaders accused Hamas of bowing too easily to Israeli demands.

Israel wants quiet, and Egypt wants quiet,” a senior Islamic Jihad leader, Ziad Alnakhala, told the London-based newspaper Al Khayat. “Hamas is willing to surrender to the dictates of Israel.”

A senior Hamas official, Ramzi Hamad, said Hamas and Israel had agreed on 90 percent of a cease-fire arrangement.

An unidentified Israeli negotiator is in Cairo presenting the Israeli position through Egyptian intelligence officers because Israel and Hamas do not officially speak to each other.

Mr. Morsi, who is under U.S. pressure, reportedly is pushing Hamas to come to terms with the Israelis.

Egyptian intelligence officers brought Hamas political chief Khaled Mashal and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shallah to a joint meeting in an attempt to resolve their differences.

Israeli spokesmen have not commented on the talks, but they have said the government will refrain from ordering an invasion of Gaza to give the negotiators time to reach agreement.

Israel has tens of thousands of troops poised along the border with Gaza, awaiting orders to launch a ground campaign.

Mr. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met for six hours Monday to discuss Israel’s negotiating positions.

“If diplomacy fails, we may well have no alternative but to send in ground forces,” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters after the meeting.

Israel’s opening demands included an end to arms transfers to Gaza and a cease-fire for 15 years, Hamas sources said.

Israel also wants the right to police a 500-yard-long tract on the Palestinian side of a border fence to prevent tunneling into Israel and the right to attack militants in Gaza if it has information that they plan to attack Israel.

Israel wants Mr. Morsi to act as a guarantor of the agreement, which would make it difficult for Hamas to disown it.

Hamas‘ known demands include a total lifting of the Israeli embargo imposed in 2000 to prevent attacks against Israel. Hamas also wants an end to Israel’s targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists and for Egypt to open its border with Gaza.

Fighting continues

As diplomats talked, fighting continued nearly round the clock.

An Israeli aircraft sent rockets into the windows of a high-rise building in Gaza City, killing or wounding four senior leaders of Islamic Jihad in what the Israeli Shin Bet security service termed one of the most successful intelligence-based attacks since the operation began.

The building, which also houses offices of Palestinian and foreign media, was hit first Sunday. Several journalists were wounded.

Plumes of smoke, flashes of exploding ordnance and the thunder of planes and bombs continued in the narrow Gaza Strip throughout the day and into the night.

More than 100 civilians reportedly have been killed and 700 wounded since the operation began Wednesday.

A similar number of militants have been killed, hunted down in the streets and alleys of Gaza by planes and drones. Militants have been using portable anti-aircraft missiles, but no Israeli aircraft has been hit.

A Gaza resident interviewed by Israel’s Channel Two said residents of the Strip want the Israeli attack to end but do not want to return to normalcy.

“For 85 percent of the population,” he said, “normality means living beneath the poverty level.”

According to reports in Israeli media, the government is open to Hamas‘ demand to lift, or at least ease, what remains of the boycott.