Blair Says Mideast Cease-Fire Elements in Place

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.
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 12, 2009; 11:48 AM

JERUSALEM, Jan. 12 -- Israeli war planes and gunboats destroyed targets in the Gaza Strip Monday, including homes of Hamas leaders, as special Mideast envoy Tony Blair said after a meeting in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that "the elements of an agreement" for a cease-fire are in place.

Blair, the former British prime minister, spoke amid intense negotiations aimed at bringing the 17-day war to a halt. Both Israel and Hamas are participating.

But as the talks proceeded in Cairo, Israeli leaders were holding separate discussions in Jerusalem, deciding whether to escalate the operation to a new, third phase.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert favors an escalation, Israeli officials say, while Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak advocate ending the offensive while Israeli casualty figures remain relatively low.

In an interview with Israel Radio Monday, Livni said Israel had succeeded in proving to Hamas it is serious about deterrence.

"Israel is a country that reacts vigorously when its citizens are fired upon, which is a good thing," she said. "That is something that Hamas now understands and that is how we are going to react in the future, if they so much as dare fire one missile at Israel."

On the ground in Gaza, active-duty Israeli forces were joined by reserves Monday in tightening their grip on Gaza City, the territory's main population hub. The third phase is expected to feature an assault on Gaza's crowded cities and refugee camps, where Hamas leaders are believed to be hiding.

Israel is seeking an end to Hamas rocket fire, but Hamas and its allies continued to fire rockets into southern Israel Monday morning. There were no reports of major injuries. Olmert has declared that Israel is "close" to achieving its goals in the conflict but is not there yet.

An Israeli push into Gaza City on Sunday produced some of the fiercest fighting yet of the 16-day war against Hamas. Despite international pressure to halt the fighting, which has wreaked havoc for Gaza's 1.5 million people, it could well grow more intense. Israel announced for the first time Sunday night that reservists had joined the fight and were operating in Gaza.

The Israeli military has been warning for days that it would soon begin a "third phase" of its offensive in Gaza, after a week of air raids and another week of ground operations by regular-duty forces. Tens of thousands of Israeli reservists had been called up and massed along the border, ready to support a possible push into Gaza's major population centers, where Hamas leaders are believed to be hiding.

The Israeli military said Sunday night that reservists had gone into Gaza several days ago, although the number was relatively small, according to an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman, Maj. Avital Leibovich. Thousands of active-duty soldiers are already operating in the strip.

As of late Sunday night, the troops -- both active-duty and reserve -- remained in the open areas on the fringes of Gaza's cities and refugee camps. But in the pre-dawn hours Sunday morning, tanks backed by helicopter gunships had made their furthest push yet into the Gaza City area, home to 400,000 people. Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed that they ambushed the advancing troops in a Gaza City suburb, Sheikh Ajleen, prompting a pitched battle that ended in the early afternoon.

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