- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

UPDATED:

TEL AVIV | Israel killed a top Hamas leader and pushed into the heart of Gaza City on Thursday in what was described as the fiercest day of attacks in its offensive against the militant Islamist group.

Israel also shelled a U.N. compound on the day when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Israel to push for a cease-fire, further straining relations between the Jewish state and the world body. Last week, an Israeli shell killed about 40 at a U.N. school sheltering Palestinians in a refugee camp.

On Friday, a senior Hamas official told Agence France-Presse that Hamas has proposed a yearlong truce with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from Gaza and an end to the blockade of the embattled enclave.

Mussa Abu Marzuk, the Damascus-based deputy head of the group’s powerful politburo, said a Hamas delegation made the offer to Egyptian authorities during talks in Cairo and that the Islamist movement was waiting for Israel’s response.

Thursday’s advance into Gaza City and the killing of Hamas Interior Minister Saeed Seyyam appeared to give Israel added leverage in cease-fire talks.

At this point, Israel can claim it had gained the upper hand during three weeks of fighting, wrote Ron Ben Yishai, a veteran military commentator for the daily Yediot Ahronot.

“This is a morale blow to the organization,” Mr. Ben Yishai said of Hamas. “The attack is an important ingredient in the ‘victory picture’ that the Israeli Defense Forces coveted.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni headed to Washington for further talks. Israel refuses to deal directly with Hamas, which is labeled a terrorist group by the U.S., Europe and Israel.

Mrs. Livni is expected to sign an agreement with the U.S. on a mechanism to close tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt to Gaza.

More than 1,000 Palestinians, about one-third of them children, have been killed in the Israeli assault, said U.N. and Palestinian hospital officials. At least 13 Israelis, 10 of them soldiers, have died.

At the U.N. compound in Gaza, Thursday’s attack wounded three Palestinians and set ablaze a warehouse with fuel and humanitarian supplies. Israel said Palestinian fighters fired from the compound where 700 refugees sought shelter - a charge the senior U.N. official in Gaza said was not true.

“It is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place, but the consequences are very sad and we apologize for it,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Associated Press. “I don’t think it should have happened and I’m very sorry.”

At a press conference with Mrs. Livni, Mr. Ban said he had expressed “outrage” to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and demanded an explanation.

“The public statements have yet to catch up with reality,” said John Ging, the director of U.N. operations in Gaza. “There were no militants in the compound, no firing by the compound.”

At the U.N. General Assembly in New York, scores of nations criticized Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Mr. Seyyam was considered a hard-liner within Hamas. He was a liaison between the military wing and the political leadership. He was tasked with building the organization’s police and security forces.

cBetsy Pisik reported from the United Nations in New York.

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