Hamas softens cease-fire terms

The Baltimore Sun


After 19 days under Israeli military assault and Egyptian diplomatic pressure, Hamas softened its terms for a cease-fire yesterday as fighting in the Gaza Strip pushed the death toll past 1,000.

The militant Palestinian group altered its stance in talks with Egyptian mediators in Cairo. It was the first sign of progress toward a deal to end the punishing offensive and halt rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel.

Israel announced that it would send an emissary, Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, to Cairo today to discuss a cease-fire proposal with the Egyptians. Officials and analysts on all sides said at least several more days of talks might be needed to reach even the first stage of an accord.

Fighting in Gaza took a gruesome turn yesterday. An Israeli airstrike hit a cemetery, shattering headstones and scattering body parts and rotting flesh. Along the Lebanese-Israeli border, militants provoked an exchange of rocket fire with the Israeli army for the second time in a week, threatening to widen the conflict.

A coalition of eight Israeli human rights groups condemned what it called Israel's disproportionate harm to civilians who are caught in Gaza's battle zone and deprived of adequate medical, electricity, water and sewage services. It called for an investigation of Israel for possible war crimes.

But diplomacy took center stage as Israeli and Hamas officials looked for a way out of a conflict that seems stalemated. The stated goal of Israel's relentless ground and air attacks, stopping years of rocket fire, remains unfulfilled; Hamas' 15,000-man paramilitary force, although still dangerous, has been badly weakened.

Hamas had previously demanded that Israeli forces halt the offensive, leave Gaza and lift a crippling blockade of the 140-square-mile territory as a precondition for a cease-fire.

Yesterday, the group offered a temporary truce that would give Israel five days to withdraw its forces while talks continued on issues underlying the conflict: Hamas' insistence on open borders and Israel's demand for a halt to arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.

A senior Hamas official in Cairo disclosed the group's position on condition of anonymity after Egyptian and Hamas officials decided not to comment publicly on details of the talks.

Hamas altered its terms after Egypt reportedly pressed for a 10-day temporary truce. Israel's relentless air and ground attack also apparently swayed Hamas' leaders, who have sounded more open to a deal in recent days.

Egypt is overseeing the talks in part because Israel refuses to negotiate directly with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization.

The rocket fire from Lebanon yesterday smashed into northern Israel, provoking a counterattack by Israeli artillery units and sending civilians running for bomb shelters.

It was the second such attack in less than a week. Although the Israeli military said the rockets injured no one and damaged nothing, the launches revived concerns that militants might try to open a new front to distract Israel from its war on Gaza.

There was no claim of responsibility for the rockets, which landed near the town of Kiryat Shemona. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia that fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006, had denied involvement in the earlier attack.

In Gaza, the Israeli military said, warplanes and helicopter gunships hit at least 60 targets early today, including more than 30 weapons-smuggling tunnels from Egypt.

The fighting has weakened the military power of Hamas, and its political leadership is divided over plans for a possible cease-fire. But an Israeli intelligence official said Tuesday that the radical group remained dangerous, with 15,000 fighters, tunnels and a sophisticated arsenal of rockets and antitank weapons.

The Israeli intelligence official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity because of security concerns, did not underestimate Hamas but indicated that the group had been overwhelmed by more than two weeks of bombardment. The official said Hamas was not significantly tapping its caches of antitank and antiaircraft missiles but was occasionally using suicide bombers to spearhead combat missions.

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