Israel pummelled Gaza with new strikes yesterday ahead of an expected unilateral halt to a 22-day-old war on Hamas, which vowed to fight on as long as troops remained in the battered enclave.
The Israeli Security Cabinet was to convene later yesterday to consider ordering a halt to its offensive, which has killed more than 1,200 Palestinians and left much of Gaza in ruins.
But even before any official announcement, Hamas said it would not be laying down its arms as Israel still planned to keep its troops in Gaza.
“This unilateral ceasefire does not foresee a withdrawal” by the Israeli army, said Osama Hemdan, the movement's Lebanon representative. “As long as it remains in Gaza, resistance and confrontation will continue.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was to address the press along with senior ministers following the Security Cabinet meeting, which was widely expected to vote in favor of a unilateral ceasefire in Israel's deadliest ever offensive on Gaza.
In the hours before the meeting, the Israeli army kept up its attacks, killing more than a dozen people, including a woman and a child who had taken refuge with hundreds of others at a UN-run school in the north.
It was at least the fourth Israeli strike on an UNRWA-operated school in Gaza and the UN agency demanded an investigation.
The expected stop to the violence came after the Jewish state won pledges from Washington and Cairo to help prevent arms smuggling into the Islamist-run enclave from Egypt, a key demand for ending the war.
However, Egypt, which had been trying to broker a reciprocal peace deal, blamed the failure of its efforts on Israeli “intransigence.”
Under the terms of the proposal being discussed by the Security Cabinet, Israel would silence its guns even without a truce with Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since the middle of 2007, a senior government official said.
The Israeli official made it clear that the army would respond to any Hamas attacks even after a ceasefire order from the Security Cabinet.
“If it decides to open fire, we will not hesitate to respond and resume our offensive,” he said.
The Security Cabinet meeting came as the UN General Assembly called for an immediate ceasefire to end a war whose stated aim was to halt rocket fire by Gaza militants. Half of the Palestinian dead have been civilians.
Gaza militants fired some seven rockets into Israel yesterday, without causing any casualties.
“The [Israeli] Security Cabinet is expected to vote in favor of a unilateral ceasefire at [yesterday's] meeting following the signing of the memorandum in Washington and significant progress made in Cairo,” the government official said on condition of anonymity.
The breakthrough came after Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni signed the deal with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice under which the US would assist in preventing smuggling into Gaza, and a top envoy returned from talks in Cairo.
“Olmert was satisfied with the results of the talks in Cairo, which answered Israel's basic requirements for a thorough answer to Israel's demands to halt rocket fire and an agreement on coordination between Israel and Egypt on the opening of the crossings” on the Gaza border, the official said.
However Egypt, whose President Hosni Mubarak has been busy trying to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas, showed anger that its efforts had been in vain.