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On Day of Heavy Fighting, Moves Toward Gaza Peace

Israel continues its military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as diplomats in Cairo suggest tentative progress in their efforts to reach a cease-fire.

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 16, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 15 -- After one of the most violent days of Israel's nearly three-week-old war against the Hamas movement in Gaza, the conflict appeared late Thursday to be moving toward a diplomatic solution.

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Just before midnight, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni unexpectedly flew to Washington, where she and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were expected to sign an agreement on measures intended to stop Hamas from smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip from Egypt, a critical Israeli demand. Meanwhile, Israeli officials said they were hopeful that an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Hamas was within reach.

Israel's two other top leaders, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, met Thursday night, discussing terms to which Hamas had agreed in principle on Wednesday. Although there were no announcements after the meeting and the talks still had the potential to sour, officials said the gap between Israel and Hamas had narrowed considerably. Israel's top negotiator, Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, was scheduled to return to Cairo on Friday for more talks.

The two sides are discussing a one-year renewable truce, said a senior Israeli official, declining to be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the talks. The agreement would specify how quickly Israel would withdraw its forces from Gaza and when it would reopen border crossings, the official said. Israel has demanded guarantees that the rocket fire from Gaza will stop.

Fighting continued amid the diplomatic activity. In past wars, Israel has intensified its military campaign in the final days and hours before a cease-fire in order to achieve favorable truce terms.

Dozens of Palestinians died Thursday, bringing the toll to more than 1,090, according to Palestinian health officials. A Gazan Health Ministry official, Muawiyah Hassanein, said 375 children, 150 women and 14 medical staffers were among the dead. He said 5,000 people had been injured. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, including three civilians.

As Israeli troops backed by helicopter gunships pushed into densely populated Gaza City, a U.N. compound and a hospital building were shelled and a Hamas leader was killed.

At the U.N. compound, an Israeli shell ignited a warehouse filled with food and injured three people. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon -- in Israel to push for the cease-fire -- said Barak had initially apologized for the incident, calling it a "grave mistake." But Olmert, while expressing regret, later said a Hamas fighter had used the building to take cover after firing at Israeli troops.

U.N. Relief and Works Agency spokesman Christopher Gunness vehemently denied that charge, saying it was another in a series of incidents in recent weeks in which Israel has made excuses for striking U.N. facilities and personnel. "Their credibility is hanging in rags," he said.

Gunness also accused Israel of hitting the U.N. compound with white phosphorus, a weapon that under international law is not supposed to be used in urban areas because it is highly flammable. Israel has not commented on its possible use of white phosphorus but has insisted it is in compliance with international law. White phosphorus is permitted for use in illumination and in creating smoke screens.

Separately, an artillery shell hit a hospital's administrative building. The building caught fire, trapping workers inside, hospital officials said. An Israel Defense Forces spokesman said the military was investigating.

"For two hours the fire was burning, with heavy smoke," said Ziad Kahlut, a doctor at al-Quds Hospital. "We were panicked that the fire would spread to the rest of the hospital."

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