Palestinians said they were close to agreement on a unity government aimed at ending a crippling Western aid boycott, while Israel pressed ahead with its bloody offensive in northern Gaza.
Israeli troops killed seven Hamas militants, including a top rocket maker, and two other Palestinians, including a girl, died on Saturday, the fourth day of the drive against Palestinian rocket squads in and around the northern Gaza border town of Beit Hanoun.
A municipal official said the town's electricity was cut and water was in short supply. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appealed for UN intervention to stop the Israeli operation.
A 12-year-old girl was shot in the head and killed by an Israeli sniper, Palestinian officials said. The Israeli military said the sniper was aiming at an armed militant and hit the girl by mistake. The military expressed regret.
Later on Saturday, a 19-year-old was killed by a shot to the head, hospital officials said.
Palestinian officials said agreement on a new government was just days away, but a top aide to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said the guidelines would fall short of Western demands.
Officials close to Abbas and Haniyeh said progress is being made on a Hamas proposal to set up a government of experts who have some ties to Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement. Hamas would be given eight Cabinet seats, Fatah four, and several smaller groups one each, meaning Hamas would control any Cabinet vote. The new prime minister would also have Hamas ties, according to the officials.
The new government's program, the key sticking point in the past, would be intentionally vague, including on a possible recognition of Israel, the officials said. Hamas leaders were to review the proposal on Saturday and make a decision yesterday on whether to present it as the official offer.
In London, Ahmed Yousef, a key Haniyeh adviser, said the new government's guidelines would not include recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence or endorsement of past peace accords, as the West insists.
Negotiations have broken down repeatedly in the past, despite optimistic forecasts.
In Saturday's Gaza violence, Israeli aircraft killed a Hamas rocket maker in a missile strike on his minivan and ground forces blew up a weapons storehouse. Six more Hamas gunmen were killed in separate incidents and a civilian died when his house, apparently weakened by the shock of explosions, collapsed on him, according to Palestinian reports.
Forty-four Palestinians have been killed since Wednesday in the military's campaign in Beit Hanoun. More than 200 people have been wounded in the sweep so far, Palestinian health officials said. One Israeli soldier has been killed in the fighting and one seriously wounded.
The deputy head of Beit Hanoun's town council, Tisyan Hamad, said the destruction causededby the latest sweep is worse than anything the town has suffered in past Israeli operations.
The Israeli military says it has teams of liaison officers working with Palestinian officials to maintain deliveries of food and medical supplies, repair damaged power lines and facilitate the evacuation of the Palestinian wounded.
The army says the town was targeted as a major launching ground for rockets on Israeli communities nearby.
Abbas on Saturday sent a message to the UN Security Council asking it to rein in the Israeli military, his spokesman said.
In Gaza, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees said the Israeli operation jeopardized prospects for the safe release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas-linked militants in June. A spokesman for the group, using the alias Abu Abir, also said Israel would face a wave of suicide bombings if the offensive was not halted within two days.
Separately, the Palestinian foreign minister told Egypt's state-run news agency that the offensive in the Gaza Strip could endanger Shalit's life and is an impediment to his release.
"This aggression might claim the life of the Israeli soldier," Mahmoud Zahar said on Saturday, hinting that Shalit could be in one of the zones that Israelis are bombing.
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