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Archive for Friday, January 16, 2009

Israel to vote on Gaza truce proposal

January 16, 2009

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An Israeli soldier jumps off an armored vehicle carrying a flag of Israel's 60th anniversary as he celebrates with his unit their return from the Gaza Strip on the Israeli side of the border, Friday Jan. 16, 2009. Top Israeli diplomats headed for Egypt and the United States on Friday in what appeared to be a final push toward a cease-fire to end Israel's punishing Gaza offensive against Hamas militants.

An Israeli soldier jumps off an armored vehicle carrying a flag of Israel's 60th anniversary as he celebrates with his unit their return from the Gaza Strip on the Israeli side of the border, Friday Jan. 16, 2009. Top Israeli diplomats headed for Egypt and the United States on Friday in what appeared to be a final push toward a cease-fire to end Israel's punishing Gaza offensive against Hamas militants.

— Israel said it was approaching the “endgame” of its three-week offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers and scheduled a Security Cabinet vote today on a truce proposed by Egypt.

Under the cease-fire plan, fighting would stop immediately for 10 days, but Israeli forces would initially remain in Gaza and the border crossings into the territory would remain closed until security arrangements are made to ensure Hamas militants do not rearm.

If Israel agrees to stop shooting, Israel radio said a truce summit would be in Cairo on Sunday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Israeli leaders expected to attend.

Hamas’ political chief rejected Israel’s conditions, but negotiators for the Islamic militant group were in behind-the-scenes contact with mediators in Cairo and signaled it was time for a truce.

“If they are ready, we are ready,” Osama Hamdan, a top Hamas figure, told Sky News.

Israel launched its military offensive Dec. 27 to try to halt Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel, and top envoys were in Cairo and Washington on Friday to discuss cease-fire terms.

Palestinian medics say the fighting has killed at least 1,140 Palestinians and Israel’s bombing campaign caused massive destruction in the Gaza Strip. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, four by rocket fire, according to Israel.

The Israeli vote was scheduled hours after the U.S. paved the way by agreeing to provide assurances that Hamas will not be able to rearm if Israel approves a cease-fire. It comes ahead of President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday, and Israeli elections next month.

A senior Israeli official said a vote approving the truce would amount to a “unilateral” cease-fire, though Israeli forces would only leave Gaza after an official declaration that the fighting was over. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

A truce would begin a phased process in which Israel halts its military offensive and then gauges the reaction from Hamas militants, the official said. If the militants continue to fire rockets, the assault would resume.

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

U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said Ban, who had weekend visits planned to Lebanon and Syria, was considering whether to attend a summit in Cairo Sunday, adding: “There’s been no decision yet.”

Israeli leaders were also considering whether to attend the summit, the senior Israeli official said.

The diplomatic developments coincided with an easing of violence in Gaza, where Israeli assaults killed 14 Palestinians on Friday, a lower death toll than in recent days. Palestinian medics took advantage of the relative calm, digging out 25 bodies buried under rubble in areas where Israeli forces and militants had clashed.

Israeli envoy Amos Gilad returned from Cairo and reported “substantial progress” in truce talks with Egyptian mediators, said a statement from the office of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

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