Israel and Hamas scaled back their fighting in the Gaza Strip yesterday and considered a cease-fire proposal from Egypt and France, even as Israeli leaders weighed a deeper assault into the Palestinian militant group's urban strongholds.
Fighting on the 12th day of the air, land and sea offensive all but halted for three hours during a unilateral Israeli pause. Israeli officials said they wanted to give diplomacy a chance, but they indicated that a decision to end or intensify the operation, aimed at halting rocket fire into Israel, could come by week's end.
"From Israel's perspective, there's no contradiction between pursuing the military targets in Gaza and working in parallel on the diplomatic track," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. He added that "a weaker Hamas is a Hamas that's easier to contain" under any negotiated cease-fire.
During the pause, tens of thousands of beleaguered Palestinians ventured into Gaza's streets to stock up on food and fuel, flee to safer quarters or simply unwind. Fighting bracketed the lull, but yesterday's Palestinian death toll, 22, was the lowest of any day since Israel launched the offensive Dec. 27.
Israel, responding to a worldwide outcry over the punishing toll on Gaza's 1.5 million people, suspended its offensive to allow humanitarian agencies to distribute relief supplies. Israeli officials said such lulls would be declared daily.
Hamas largely respected the 1 p.m.-to-4 p.m. pause, which brought calm except for a few reported violations on each side.
It was the first letup in an assault that has killed more than 700 Palestinians, of whom the United Nations says more than one-fourth are civilians. Ten Israelis have been killed since the fighting began, including three civilians.
Like Israel, Hamas said it was studying the cease-fire proposal, which is being fleshed out in negotiations involving the United States, Israel, European nations, Egypt and other Arab states.
"Given the diplomatic efforts, I am confident that we can agree within 48 hours on a formula both sides can accept," Ahmed Yusuf, a senior adviser to the Hamas government in Gaza, told the Israel's Ynet news.
French officials said they had received a commitment by phone from Syrian leader Bashar Assad to urge Hamas to accept a truce. Syria is a patron of the group.
Discussion on how to end the operation gained momentum after two events Tuesday: a proposal by France and Egypt for a cease-fire and the Israeli shelling of a United Nations-run school in Gaza killed 40 civilians, raising international pressure on Israel to withdraw.
"Israel has reached an undesirable point," Giora Eiland, a retired brigadier general who once led Israel's National Security Council, told Israel radio. "We have become the isolated party." Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, only to come under frequent rocket attack from Hamas militants there. The Islamic group, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and seized control of Gaza from the rival Fatah group in June 2007.
In response, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza with Egypt's backing, but that failed to stop the rockets. A truce brokered by Egypt in June broke down in November, and Hamas let it lapse Dec. 19.
Israel's airstrikes began eight days later, followed by a ground offensive that has cut Gaza in two and set off fighting at the edges of its densely populated cities and refugee camps.
Israeli analysts close to the military said it believed the ground sweep had been well-executed but had elicited far less resistance than expected from Hamas' 15,000-man paramilitary force in open areas outside the cities, apparently leaving much of it intact.
Although the goal of crippling Hamas' ability to fire rockets had not yet been achieved, the analysts said, the Israeli military is not eager to take the offensive inside the cities, where Hamas militants await in a warren of booby-trapped hide-outs and tunnels.