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Gaza truce may be at hand

Israeli minister arrives in D.C. to meet Rice

JERUSALEM – After one of the most violent days of Israel’s nearly three-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 unexpectedly 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 Egypt-brokered cease-fire with Hamas was within reach.

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 Isreal 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.

Fighting continued amid the diplomatic activity. 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.

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

As Israeli troops backed by helicopter gunships pushed into densely populated Gaza City, a U.N. compound and a hospital building were both shelled and a prominent Hamas leader was killed.

At the U.N. compound, 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 that Barak had initially apologized for the incident, calling it a “grave mistake.” But Olmert, while expressing regret, later said that a Hamas fighter had used the building to take cover after firing at Israeli troops.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesman Chris Gunness vehemently denied that charge, saying it represented another in a series of incidents in recent weeks in which Israel has made excuses for striking United Nations facilities and personnel.

“Their credibility is hanging in rags,” he said.

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’s top five leaders within Gaza, with leadership over a 13,000-member police and security force, and was considered a hard-liner who resisted compromise with Israel. Siam’s brother and other Hamas members were also killed.

Siam is the highest ranking Hamas political leader to die in the 20-day Israeli campaign; the others are believed to have gone into hiding.

Hamas and its allies in Gaza fired more than 25 rockets into Israel Thursday. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Among other buildings hit Thursday was a high-rise building used by journalists. Two cameramen were injured.

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