Israel bombards Hamas hours before cease-fire vote

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 2:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2009 at 2:33 p.m.

JERUSALEM -- Israel's top leadership met Saturday to approve a unilateral cease-fire that would halt the devastating 22-day offensive in Gaza but Hamas vowed to keep fighting until all Israeli forces pull out.

The 12-member Security Cabinet is expected to back an Egyptian-brokered proposal for a 10-day cease-fire during which Israeli troops would remain on the ground while longer term arrangements are hammered out with international backing.

But in a show of defiance, a Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a speech aired on the group's TV station in Gaza that a unilateral cease-fire was not enough.

"The occupier must halt his fire immediately and withdraw from our land and lift his blockade and open all crossings and we will not accept any one Zionist soldier on our land, regardless of the price that it costs," Barhoum said.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak indicated Israel's readiness for a cease-fire, saying the country "was very close to achieving its goals and securing them through diplomatic agreements." He spoke during a trip to southern Israel, which has been the target of militant rocket fire.

Even as the Israeli leaders met, the military kept up its bombardment of dozens of Hamas targets in Gaza.

Walls shook and windows trembled in the southern Gaza border town of Rafah as fighter jets soared above head, apparently focusing their missiles on the no-man's land with Egypt where many suspected smuggling tunnels lie.

Gaza's Hamas rulers have sent mixed signals on whether the group would reciprocate.

The latest Hamas statement from leaders inside Gaza put them in line with Hamas' exiled leadership, which has vowed to continue the fight against Israel.

Palestinian medics say the fighting has killed at least 1,140 Palestinians roughly half of them civilians and Israel's bombing campaign caused massive destruction in the Gaza Strip. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, according to the government.

If the truce is approved, fighting would stop immediately for 10 days. Israeli forces would remain in Gaza during that time and the territory's border crossing with Israel and Egypt would remain closed until security arrangements are made to prevent Hamas arms smuggling.

If the cease-fire is approved, it was not clear how Israel would respond to violations of a cease-fire.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni indicated that Israel would renew its offensive if Hamas militants continued to fire rockets at Israel after Israel declared a truce.

"This campaign is not a one-time event," she said in an interview with the Israeli YNet news Web site. "The test will be the day after. That is the test of deterrence."

Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27 to try to halt near-daily Hamas rocket attacks against southern Israel. Its key demand is for guarantees that Hamas halt the smuggling of rockets, explosives and other weapons through the porous Egyptian border.

Under the deal, Egypt would shut down weapons smuggling routes with international help and discussions on opening Gaza's blockaded border crossings Hamas' key demand would take place at a later date.

Cabinet minister Shaul Mofaz, who was attend Saturday night's Security Cabinet meeting, said any deal would also require a mechanism for negotiating the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit who was captured by Hamas more than two years ago.

Egypt has been a key interlocutor in weeks of negotiations to end the assault on Gaza sparked by years of Hamas rocket fire at southern Israel.

"I demand Israel today stop its military operations immediately," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said. "I demand from its leaders an immediate and unconditional cease-fire and I demand from them a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Strip."

Israel Radio reported that a truce summit could be held in Egypt as early as Sunday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Israeli leaders in attendance.

Speaking to Lebanon's parliament Saturday, Ban said Hamas must stop rocket attacks on Israel and the Jewish state must immediately end its offensive and withdraw its troops from Gaza.

"We cannot wait for all the details, the mechanisms, to be conclusively negotiated and agreed, while civilians continue to be traumatized, injured or killed," he said. "We have no more time to lose. We demand an immediate cease-fire," said Ban.

In the meantime, there was no slowdown in the offensive. A total of 13 Palestinians were killed in battles throughout Gaza Saturday, Palestinian medics said.

In the northern town of Beit Lahiya, Israeli shells struck a U.N. school where 1,600 people had sought shelter to flee the fighting. One shell scored a direct hit on the top floor of the three-story building, killing two boys, U.N. officials said. An adjacent room was turned into a blackened mess of charred concrete and twisted metal bed frames.

John Ging, the top U.N. official in Gaza, condemned the attack the latest in a series of Israeli shellings that have struck U.N. installations.

"The question that has to be asked is for all those children and all those innocent people who have been killed in this conflict. Were they war crimes? Were they war crimes that resulted in the deaths of the innocents during this conflict? That question has to be answered," he said.

The Israeli army said it was launching a high-level investigation into the shelling, as well as four other attacks that hit civilian targets, including the U.N. headquarters in Gaza. The army investigation also includes the shelling of a hospital, a media center and the home of a well-known doctor.

An Israeli military spokesman said the investigations would be handled at the command level. He spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.

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