Senior Israeli defense official Amos Gilad arrived in Cairo yesterday to hear Hamas’ response to an Egyptian-mediated plan for an end to the fighting in the Islamist-controlled Gaza Strip.
Gilad was to be briefed by Egypt’s pointman for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the day after Hamas presented its “vision” for a ceasefire, limiting its acceptance to the plan’s “broad outlines.”
“This crucial meeting should last two or three hours, and Gilad should leave this afternoon to inform the Israeli government for them to take a decision,” a diplomatic source close to the negotiations said.
Hamas spokesman Salah al-Bardawil said late on Wednesday that “[Egyptian] President [Hosni] Mubarak’s vision is the only one that was proposed, we don’t ask for any amendment to its broad outlines.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said that “we will tell the Israelis what we have obtained from our brothers Hamas ... We hope that things will move forwards but we will not enter into details.”
Abul Gheit said that Mubarak’s plan, launched on Jan. 6, calls for an “immediate ceasefire and acceptance of withdrawal” of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip.
He said that the opening of crossing points into the beleaguered territory requires talks on “who must be on the crossing points and if the presence of other parties is required ... we will discuss this.”
Israel has made an end to its offensive conditional on a halt to Gaza rocket fire against southern Israel and creating an effective mechanism to halt smuggling into the territory from Egypt.
Hamas insists on an end to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and an opening up of crossing points to normal traffic.
In Gaza, Israeli ground troops pushed deep into the city yesterday, advancing close to the city center and sparking heavy battles with local militants.
Backed by heavy tank shelling, the troops concentrated in the southern Tel el-Hawa neighborhood made their deepest push yet into the city of 400,000 and were now “very close” to Gaza City’s Islamic University and UN headquarters, they said.
Residents of Tel el-Hawa were panicking in their residential buildings, some of them high-rises, while keeping doors and windows shut, and calling on international organizations to evacuate them. Thousands were also fleeing their homes. Ambulances were unable to reach the area amid the heavy fighting. Heavy exchanges were also reported in the nearby, but more southern Zaytoun neighborhood.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said local militants were confronting the ground troops with mortar shells and gunfire, sparking “very intense” exchanges of fire. She said the tanks were returning fire only toward the sources of the Palestinian fire.
Hamas and other militant factions in turn also stepped up their rocket attacks, firing at least 16 into southern Israel by mid-morning.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier were each due to hold talks with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv yesterday, meeting Israeli President Shimon Peres, caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Palestinians reported at least seven killed during the night. The Palestinian toll on day 20 of the Israeli offensive now stands at at least 1,040 dead and some 5,000 injured, according to Gaza emergency services chief Moaweya Hassanein.