On a day of action on military and diplomatic fronts, Israeli soldiers drove deep into Gaza City yesterday, killed two top Hamas leaders and incurred withering international criticism for shelling a United Nations compound full of provisions for refugees.
Despite the assault, Hamas fighters managed to fire at least 26 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel. A rocket seriously wounded a woman and a 7-year-old boy in Beersheva, about 26 miles from Gaza, and injured three others.
But there were also signs that a cease-fire deal was within reach. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni boarded a midnight flight to Washington, where she was expected to sign an agreement with U.S. diplomats for aggressive interdiction of rockets and other arms to Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
U.S. officials in Washington said Livni would meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to work out details of an understanding concerning the U.S. security assurances. Another Israeli envoy consulted with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after meeting in Cairo with Egyptian officials, key players in the proposed anti-smuggling agreement. Olmert called Rice to say that Israel wanted to pursue the "Egyptian track" to end the military operation, officials said.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who met with Livni and other leaders after arriving from Cairo, expressed hope for a resolution.
"I believe from my talks in Egypt that the elements are in place for this violence to end now," he said.
Moreover, there is widespread belief here that Israeli leaders will end the combat before President-elect Barack Obama takes office Tuesday to avoid getting off on the wrong foot with the new administration.
Death still ruled the streets and skies of Gaza City on the 21st day of the offensive. An Israeli airstrike obliterated a three-story building in Jabaliya refugee camp, killing Said Siam, 49, who as Hamas' interior minister oversaw the police and other security forces. Israeli and Palestinian officials said the attack also killed Siam's brother, Iyad Siam, and one of Siam's deputies, Salah abu Sharah, who was in charge of the domestic security apparatus.
Said Siam, a former teacher, was one of the five top political figures in Hamas and very close to its military wing. Hamas members eulogized him with defiant rhetoric.
"We will not wave white flags or surrender," said Osama Hamdan, a Beirut-based Hamas figure. "This is evidence that Hamas leaders are in the battlefield and not hiding." At least 70 Palestinians were killed in Gaza yesterday, according to Gaza medical sources, bringing the death toll to more than 1,100. Thirteen Israelis have died, including three civilians killed by rocket fire from Gaza and four soldiers slain in "friendly fire."
Israeli forces advanced to within half a mile of the heart of Gaza City, their deepest penetration yet into the densely populated area, according to Adnan abu Hasna, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA.
Artillery fire hit a UNRWA compound where at least 700 Palestinians had sought shelter and thousands of gallons of fuel were stored. The shelling set the compound ablaze, destroying thousands of pounds of badly needed food and medicine. Three U.N. employees were injured.
In Jerusalem, Secretary-General Ban expressed "strong protest and outrage" at the attack and demanded an explanation. Olmert said Israeli forces had returned fire at Hamas fighters in or near the U.N. site.
"It is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place, but the consequences are very sad, and we apologize for it," Olmert said. "I don't think it should have happened, and I'm very sorry." However, U.N. officials denied that Hamas militants fired from the compound.