- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 20, 2012

JERUSALEM — A diplomatic push to end Israel’s nearly weeklong offensive in the Gaza Strip gained momentum Tuesday, with Egypt’s president predicting that airstrikes would soon end, the U.S. Secretary of State racing to the region and Israel’s prime minister saying his country would be a “willing partner” to a cease-fire with the Islamic militant group Hamas.

As international diplomats worked to cement a deal, a senior Hamas official said an agreement was close even as relentless airstrikes and rocket attacks between the two sides continued. The Israeli death toll rose to five with the deaths Tuesday of an Israeli soldier and a civilian contractor. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed.

“We haven’t struck the deal yet, but we are progressing and it will most likely be tonight,” Moussa Abu Marzouk said Tuesday from Cairo, where cease-fire talks were being held. A second Hamas official, Izzat Risheq, said later that a deal might not be reached.

Israeli officials said only that “intensive efforts” were under way to end the fighting. Israeli media quoted Defense Minister Ehud Barak as telling a closed meeting that Israel wanted a 24-hour test period of no rocket fire to see if Hamas could enforce a truce.


In what appeared to be a last-minute burst of heavy fire, Israeli tanks and gunboats shelled targets late Tuesday, and an airstrike killed two brothers riding on a motorcycle. The men weren’t identified.

The fighting came shortly before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived. Clinton rushed to a late-night meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. President Barack Obama dispatched her to the Mideast from Cambodia, where she had accompanied him on a visit.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, perhaps the most important interlocutor between Hamas, which rules the Palestinian territory, and the Israelis, said the negotiations between the two sides would yield “positive results” during the coming hours.

Israel demands an end to rocket fire from Gaza and a halt to weapons smuggling into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt. It also wants international guarantees that Hamas will not rearm or use Egypt’s Sinai region, which abuts both Gaza and southern Israel, to attack Israelis.

Hamas wants Israel to halt all attacks on Gaza and lift tight restrictions on trade and movement in and out of the territory that have been in place since Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007. Israel has rejected such demands in the past.

In Brussels, a senior official of the European Union’s foreign service said a cease-fire would include an end of Israeli airstrikes and targeted killings in Gaza, the opening of Gaza crossing points and an end to rocket attacks on Israel. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Violence raged on as the talks continued. An airstrike late Tuesday killed two journalists who work for the Hamas TV station, Al-Aqsa, according to a statement from the channel. The men were in a car hit by an airstrike, Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said. Israel claims that many Hamas journalists are involved in militant activities. Earlier this week it targeted the station’s offices, saying it served as a Hamas communications post.

By Tuesday, 133 Palestinians, including at least 54 civilians, were killed since Israel began an air onslaught that has so far included nearly 1,500 strikes. Some 840 people have been wounded, including 225 children, Gaza health officials said.

Five Israelis, including an 18-year-old soldier and a civilian contractor who worked for the military struck by rocket fire on Tuesday, have also been killed and dozens wounded since the fighting began last week, the numbers possibly kept down by a rocket-defense system that Israel developed with U.S. funding. More than 1,000 rockets have been fired at Israel this week, the military said.

Late Tuesday, a Palestinian rocket hit a house in the central Israeli city of Rishon Lezion, wounding two people and badly damaging the top two floors of the building, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. In other violence, a 60-year-old Israeli woman was seriously wounded in a firebombing attack as she drove in the West Bank, police said.

With the death toll rising, the international community stepped up efforts to bring a halt to the fighting that began last Wednesday with an Israel’s assassination of the Hamas military chief.

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