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Cease-fire appears near for Gaza Strip

Smoke rises from the United Nations headquarters in Gaza City after it was hit by an Israeli shell. Israeli leaders expressed regret but said a militant was using the building for cover.

Associated Press

Smoke rises from the United Nations headquarters in Gaza City after it was hit by an Israeli shell. Israeli leaders expressed regret but said a militant was using the building for cover.

JERUSALEM — After one of the most violent days of Israel's nearly 3-week-old war against the Hamas movement in Gaza, the conflict appeared late Thursday to be moving toward a diplomatic solution.

Just before midnight, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni flew to Washington, where she and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were expected to sign an agreement on measures intended to stop Hamas from smuggling weapons into Gaza from Egypt, a critical Israeli demand.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials said they were hopeful that an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Hamas was within reach.

Fighting raged amid the diplomatic activity. As Israeli troops backed by helicopter gunships pushed into densely populated Gaza City, a U.N. compound and a hospital building were shelled and a Hamas leader was killed.

Israel's two other top leaders, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, met Thursday night, discussing terms to which Hamas had agreed in principle on Wednesday.

Although there were no announcements after the meeting and the talks still had the potential to sour, officials said the gap between Israel and Hamas had narrowed considerably. Israel's top negotiator, Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, was scheduled to return to Cairo today for more talks.

The two sides are discussing a one-year renewable truce, said a senior Israeli official, declining to be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the talks. The agreement would specify how quickly Israel would withdraw its forces from Gaza and when it would reopen border crossings, the official said. Israel has demanded guarantees that the rocket fire from Gaza will stop.

In past wars, Israel has intensified its military campaign in the final days and hours before a cease-fire in order to achieve favorable truce terms.

At the U.N. compound Thursday, an Israeli shell ignited a warehouse filled with food and injured three people. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, in Israel to push the cease-fire, said Barak had initially apologized for the incident, calling it a "grave mistake." But Olmert, while expressing regret, later said a Hamas fighter had used the building to take cover.

U.N. Relief and Works Agency spokesman Chris Gunness vehemently denied that, saying it represented another in a series of incidents in recent weeks in which Israel has made excuses for striking U.N. facilities and personnel. "Their credibility is hanging in rags," he said.

Gunness also accused Israel of hitting the U.N. compound with white phosphorus, a weapon that under international law is barred from urban areas because it is highly flammable. Israel has not commented on its possible use of white phosphorus but has insisted it is in compliance with international law. White phosphorus is permitted for use in illumination and in creating smokescreens.

In a separate incident, an artillery shell hit a hospital's administrative building. The building caught fire, trapping workers inside, hospital officials said. An Israel Defense Forces spokesman said the military was investigating.

"For two hours the fire was burning, with heavy smoke," said Ziad Kahlut, a doctor at Al-Quds Hospital. "We were panicked that the fire would spread to the rest of the hospital."

Although that did not happen, Kahlut said conditions at the hospital were grim.

"Our hospital is now overcrowded with the sick, the wounded, staff and some 300 civilians, many of them women and children, who are taking shelter," he said. "I do not know how long this can last."

Dozens of Palestinians died Thursday, bringing the overall toll above 1,090, according to Palestinian health officials. About 375 children, 150 women and 14 medical staffers are among the dead, said Gazan Health Ministry official Muawiyah Hassanein, and 5,000 people have been injured. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, including three civilians.

Also on Thursday, a senior Hamas leader, Interior Minister Said Siam, was killed when an Israeli airstrike flattened his brother's home in the Jabalya refugee camp, according to an Israeli military statement later confirmed by Hamas. Siam was one of Hamas' top five leaders within Gaza.

Cease-fire appears near for Gaza Strip 01/15/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 15, 2009 11:51pm]

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