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Diplomats close in on Gaza cease-fire


Palestinians shift through the debris after an Israeli airstrike yesterday in Gaza City. Israeli officials say they will not withdraw from Gaza until Hamas agrees to a long-term cease-fire.


JERUSALEM - Diplomats closed in yesterday on a cease-fire agreement in the Gaza Strip, but fighting persisted as the Palestinian toll in the 19-day offensive passed 1,000 dead.

Delegates from Hamas, meeting in Cairo with Egyptian mediators, said the Islamist movement was willing to agree to a truce with Israel but that obstacles remained.

Points of contention included whether a cease-fire would be temporary, when Israel would reopen checkpoints, and who might patrol Gaza's border with Egypt to prevent smugglers from resupplying Hamas with weapons, officials involved in the talks said.

Details remained under wraps, but diplomats said they were pushing for an immediate cease-fire, to be followed by further talks on border security and other issues.

Israel said it would send an emissary to Cairo today to hear details of the truce proposal.

Egyptian officials expressed optimism that a deal was near.

"We're working with Hamas and we're working with the Israeli side," Hossam Zaki, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, told the BBC. "We hope to reach an outcome soon."

Israeli officials, however, were more cautious.

They said Israel would not withdraw from Gaza unless Hamas first agreed to a long-term cease-fire.

"Israel will not accept a situation where Hamas gets a temporary period of quiet just to rearm and regroup and that ends with further rocket barrages on Israel," Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told Reuters news service.

Disagreements also persist within Israel's political leadership.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni favor a quick end to the fighting, arguing that the war has dealt Hamas a severe setback and that there is little further to be gained, according to Israeli media reports.

But Mr. Olmert, whose term ends next month, has resisted.

European diplomats said the framework for a truce was emerging but predicted that it could take days to win a final agreement.

"My perception is we are very close to reaching a cease-fire," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said in the West Bank city of Ramallah after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "They are very close, but still there is some work to be done."

Egypt is mediating the talks because Israel refuses to speak directly with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, Israeli forces and Hamas fighters continued to battle.

Health officials in Gaza said more than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed and 4,700 injured since Israel began its offensive with airstrikes Dec. 27.

A senior Israeli military official estimated Tuesday that a "few hundred" of the dead have been Hamas fighters.

Thirteen Israelis have died, including three civilians killed by Hamas rocket fire and 10 soldiers.

Nine Israeli human rights groups accused the army of endangering Gazan civilians and called for a war crimes investigation.

The groups wrote to Israeli leaders that the Gaza campaign has left civilians with nowhere to flee.

Guerrillas in Lebanon sent rockets crashing into northern Israel yesterday for the second time in a week, drawing an Israeli artillery barrage and threatening to drag the Jewish state into a second front.

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.

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