- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

CAIRO | Egypt and Hamas are close to a deal for a 10-day cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group in Gaza, where the death toll from the Israeli offensive exceeds 1,000, officials said Wednesday.

Egyptian and Hamas officials expressed optimism that an agreement for a temporary halt in fighting could be sealed soon and presented to Israel. But even if all sides sign on, further talks will be needed to resolve contentious disputes over policing Gaza’s borders and ensure a longer-term truce.

“We’re working with Hamas and we’re working with the Israeli side. We hope to reach an outcome soon,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Guerrillas in Lebanon sent rockets crashing into northern Israel on Wednesday for the second time in a week, drawing an Israeli artillery barrage.

Israel showed no signs of slowing its bruising offensive as fighting raged early Thursday north and south of Gaza City, where explosions and gunfire could be heard.

On Wednesday, Israel struck some 60 targets.

Egyptian and Hamas officials held intensive talks in Cairo. Late Wednesday, Salah al-Bardawil, a Gaza-based Hamas official, stopped short of saying Hamas had accepted the Egyptian proposal. He told reporters that “we submitted our points of view” on the proposed deal, adding, “We hope that this Egyptian effort will succeed.”

Ghazi Hamad, another Gaza-based Hamas official, told the BBC, “I am optimistic now because I think there is no other choice for us. … This kind of agreement can be done now, and I think now there is good progress in Egypt. We hope that now Egypt will contact Israel and talk about all issues.”

But there were signs Hamas’ leadership-in-exile had reservations. Osama Hamdan, a leading Hamas official in Beirut, said there were still points Hamas had not agreed to. “We do not agree with the initiative as it stands now,” he told Al Jazeera TV.

The contradictory comments were the latest sign of cracks between Hamas leaders under fire in Gaza and the leadership-in-exile, which is largely based in Syria and is seen as more hard-line.

Israel launched its offensive Dec. 27 to halt years of Palestinian rocket attacks. It has said it will press forward until Hamas halts the rocket fire and receives guarantees that Hamas will stop smuggling weapons into Gaza through the porous Egyptian border.

The offensive has killed at least 1,018 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, including 300 children and teenagers, said Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Gaza Health Ministry. The toll included 68 Palestinians who were killed or died of wounds Wednesday. More than 4,500 Palestinians have been wounded, medical officials said. Thirteen Israelis have also been killed, four by rocket fire from Gaza.

Under the Egyptian proposal, Hamas would back off its demand that Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza and borders be opened immediately as part of any halt in fighting.

Instead, Israeli forces would remain in place during a 10-day cease-fire until details on border security are worked out, Egyptian and Palestinian officials close to the talks said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met late Wednesday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to discuss the cease-fire efforts. In a sign of progress, Israel’s chief negotiator, Amos Gilad, planned to fly to Egypt on Thursday to present Israel’s stance, a senior defense official said. Mr. Gilad had put off the trip in recent days, saying the time was not yet ripe.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened a visit to the Middle East on Wednesday, urging an immediate halt to the violence.

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