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Israel's Top Leaders Weighing Their Next Steps in Gaza

Palestinians eat at a U.N. school where they are sheltering in northern Gaza. Intense fighting was reported near Gaza City as Israel tightened its cordon.
Palestinians eat at a U.N. school where they are sheltering in northern Gaza. Intense fighting was reported near Gaza City as Israel tightened its cordon. (By Hatem Moussa -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 13, 2009; Page A10

JERUSALEM, Jan. 12 -- Israel's leaders debated Monday how and when to bring their 17-day-old offensive in Gaza to an end, as battles continued to rage on the edge of Gaza City and as Israeli reservists flowed into the territory, ready for a possible deeper push into urban areas.

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The moves came as negotiators in Cairo sought to reach a cease-fire agreement, hoping to put a halt to violence that medical officials in the Gaza Strip said has claimed the lives of more than 900 Palestinians, as many as half of them civilians. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, three of them civilians.

Speaking after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, special Middle East envoy Tony Blair said that "the elements of an agreement" for a cease-fire were in place. But Israeli officials with knowledge of the talks said significant obstacles remained.

Hamas representatives were also in Cairo on Monday, conferring with Egyptian officials including intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. An Israeli Defense Ministry official, Amos Gilad, was negotiating with the Egyptians by phone Monday and was expected to travel to Cairo later in the week.

The talks in Egypt center on the question of how to keep Hamas from smuggling weapons across the Egypt-Gaza border. A senior Israeli official said Israel and Egypt are in basic agreement on a plan that would allow the European Union and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority to share responsibility for monitoring the border and the crossing point at Rafah.

"We think the Egyptian position is very reasonable," the senior Israeli official said. Egypt has said that it is reluctant to have any international monitoring presence on its borders.

But the Israeli official said the Islamist Hamas movement is adamantly opposed to any deal that would permit the Palestinian Authority, which is led by the secular Fatah party, to return to Gaza. Hamas, which won 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, routed Fatah forces in June 2007 and has had control of Gaza ever since.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, speaking from an undisclosed location on the movement's television station, attempted Monday to rally supporters. "As we are in the middle of this crisis, we tell our people we, God willing, are closer to victory. All the blood that is being shed will not be in vain," Haniyeh said, while also acknowledging that the group is pursuing diplomacy. Hamas leaders in Gaza could not be reached for comment because they have gone into hiding.

If the negotiations in Cairo are successful, they could preempt an Israeli push into the strip's densely packed cities and refugee camps, where Hamas leaders are believed to have taken refuge. Israeli military officials allege that Hamas politicians are riding out the war in a bunker beneath Gaza City's main medical center, Shifa Hospital, in addition to other sites.

Any broadening of the Israeli operation would also be likely to include an effort to retake the area around the Egyptian border, known to Israelis as the Philadelphi corridor, military analysts say.

Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but continued to carry out raids in the coastal territory as Hamas and its allies used the strip to launch rockets at Israel. A six-month cease-fire expired in mid-December, followed by a barrage of rocket launches aimed at southern Israel. Israel began its military offensive with a surprise attack on Dec. 27.

On Monday, Israel carried out more than 60 airstrikes, continuing to bomb tunnels along the border, as well as homes of Hamas leaders. There was intense fighting reported around Gaza City as Israel tightened its cordon on Gaza's largest population center, home to 400,000 of Gaza's 1.5 million residents.

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