Truce in Gaza is close, Egyptian officials say

New York Times News Service /

JERUSALEM — Diplomatic efforts accelerated Tuesday to end the lethal confrontation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza on one of the most violent days yet in the conflict, as the United States sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Middle East and Egypt’s president and his senior aides expressed confidence that a cease-fire was close.

But by late evening there was no announcement, and Clinton said she would be working in coming days to complete an agreement. Appearing beside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to speak briefly to the press, Clinton said she hoped to achieve an end to the hostilities with a deal that moves “toward a comprehensive peace for all people in the region.”

The diplomatic moves to end the nearly week-old crisis came as the antagonists on both sides intensified their attacks before any cease-fire takes effect.

Israeli aerial and naval forces assaulted several Gaza targets in multiple strikes. Those attacks brought the total number of fatalities in Gaza so far to more than 130 — roughly half of them civilians, the Gaza Health Ministry said.

Militants in Gaza fired a barrage of at least 200 rockets into Israel, killing an Israeli soldier.

Other Palestinian rockets hit the southern Israeli cities of Beersheba and Ashdod, and longer-range rockets were fired at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but neither main city was struck and no casualties were reported.

Senior Egyptian officials in Cairo said Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs Gaza, were “very close” to a cease-fire agreement that could be announced within hours.

“We have not received final approval but I hope to receive it any moment,” said Essam el-Haddad, President Mohammed Morsi’s top foreign affairs adviser.

Foreign diplomats who were briefed on the outlines of a tentative agreement said it had been structured in stages — first, an announcement of a cease-fire, followed by its implementation for 48 hours. That would allow time for Clinton to involve herself in the process on the ground here and create a window for negotiators to agree on conditions for a longer-term cessation of hostilities.

By late evening, however, there was no word on an announcement, and Israeli television was saying the talks needed more time.