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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.

Although that did not happen, Kahlut said conditions at the hospital were grim. "Our hospital is now overcrowded with the sick, the wounded, staff and some 300 civilians, many of them women and children, who are taking shelter," he said. "I do not know how long this can last."

Also on Thursday, a senior Hamas leader, Interior Minister Said Siam, was killed when an Israeli airstrike flattened his brother's home in the Jabalya refugee camp, according to an Israeli military statement later confirmed by Hamas. Siam was one of Hamas's top five leaders within Gaza, with leadership over a 13,000-member police and security force, and was considered a hard-liner who resisted compromise with Israel. Siam's brother and other Hamas members were also killed.

Siam is the highest-ranking Hamas political leader to die in the 20-day Israeli campaign; the others are believed to have gone into hiding.

Hamas and its allies in Gaza fired more than 25 rockets into Israel on Thursday. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Thursday's urban combat forced anxious residents to flee their homes, while others reported being trapped, too terrified to move. The skyline was obscured by black smoke rising from several high-rises in the heart of Gaza City that had been struck by artillery shells, as well as by smoke screens being dropped from helicopters.

Witnesses said Israeli soldiers were moving through the southwestern neighborhood of Tel Hawwa. "For 12 hours we were under continuous bombing, from 1 a.m. to 1 p.m.," said Fathi Sabah, a journalist working for the London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat.

At one point, he said, his building was struck and a fire broke out. Firefighters were unable to get through. "We had to try to extinguish the fire with the few pots of drinking water we have," said Sabah, who endured the shelling with his two daughters, Rima, 12, and Jumana, 11 . "We were just waiting to die. It was hell."

Among other buildings hit Thursday was a high-rise used by journalists. Two cameramen were injured.

At a news conference in Tel Aviv, Ban said that civilian suffering in Gaza had become "unbearable" and that the territory was facing "a dire humanitarian crisis."

Livni defended the military offensive, saying Israel is "doing what it needs to do to defend its citizens."

Hamas and its allies have fired thousands of rockets into Israel in the past eight years. The pace accelerated after the Islamist movement, which won Palestinian elections in 2006, routed forces loyal to the rival Fatah party in June 2007 and seized control of the narrow coastal strip. Since then, Israel has implemented a crushing economic blockade and carried out regular military raids that it has said were a response to rocket fire.

Hamas's 1988 charter calls for Israel's destruction, but current leaders say they are willing to enter into a long-term truce with the Jewish state.

Israel has not allowed foreign journalists into Gaza to operate independently since it launched its offensive Dec. 27. On Thursday, a small group of journalists was allowed to travel into Gaza with the Israeli military.

In an interview, an Israeli sergeant, 20-year-old Almog, told the reporters that Hamas's resistance had been less than expected. "They are villagers with guns. They don't even aim when they shoot," said Almog, a gunner on an armored personnel carrier who was not allowed to give his last name. "We kept saying Hamas was a strong terror organization, but it was more easy than we thought it would be."

Special correspondents Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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