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Hamas talks on ceasefire, Gaza dead top 1,000

GAZA (Reuters) - Ceasefire negotiations intensified on Wednesday as Israeli forces kept up the pressure on Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinian death toll rose above 1,000 after 19 days of air and ground attacks.

An Israeli envoy will meet Egyptian mediators in Cairo on Thursday after a Hamas delegation concluded talks on an Egyptian truce proposal by repeating their demand that Israel withdraw its troops and lift a long-standing blockade on the enclave.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, a former EU envoy to the Middle East, told reporters in the West Bank: “My perception is we are very close to reaching a ceasefire. They are very close but still there is some work to be done.”

In Cairo, Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil said: “The movement has presented a detailed vision to the Egyptian leadership so it can continue its pursuit to end the aggression and lift the injustice on our people in the Gaza Strip.”

He declined to give details but said Hamas would not drop its demands for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip and the permanent opening of all trade routes.

Arab diplomats say Hamas is reluctant to accept a long-term ceasefire agreement right away. Israel, which wants an end to rocket attacks on its towns and guarantees that Hamas cannot smuggle in more weapons through Egypt, said it would not agree to a truce that allowed the Islamists to regroup and rearm.

“Israel seeks a durable quiet that contains a total absence of hostile fire from Gaza into Israel and a working mechanism to prevent Hamas from rearming,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

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Releasing new figures, the Hamas-run Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip said 1,018 Palestinians had been killed and 4,700 wounded by Israeli forces so far.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights said more than 670 civilians were among the dead. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians hit by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have been killed since Israel launched its campaign on December 27.

Israel sent warplanes to drop more bunker-busting bombs on the smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

“They used bombs that went deep into the tunnels and shook the whole Rafah refugee camp. The land trembled beneath our feet,” said Bassam Abdallah, a local Palestinian cameraman.

Also in Cairo, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon renewed his call for “an immediate and durable ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas, whose fighters fired more rockets into southern Israeli cities, causing no casualties.

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In northern Israel, three rockets launched from Lebanon hit fields outside the town of Kiryat Shmona, the second such attack in less than a week. There was no claim of responsibility and Israel, which responded with artillery, said it hoped to avoid the opening of a second front. No one was hurt in the exchange.

The Israeli military said its aircraft bombed about 35 border tunnels and also struck Hamas police headquarters in the Israeli-encircled city of Gaza, as well as eight squads of gunmen and weapons storage facilities.

Palestinian medics said 18 people were killed in Gaza on Wednesday, eight of them civilians, including two medics.

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In an audio tape on Islamist websites, Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden called for jihad (holy struggle) over the Israeli offensive, which has caused widespread anger in the Arab and Muslim world.

Addressing “our brothers in Palestine,” he said: “We are with you and we will not let you down. Our fate is tied to yours in fighting the Crusader-Zionist coalition, in fighting until victory or martyrdom.”

With Israeli troops edging closer to the heart of the city of Gaza, international organizations have expressed growing concern about the plight of children trapped there.

Human rights groups have reported shortages of vital supplies, including water, in the Hamas-ruled territory. A fuel shortage has brought frequent power blackouts.

Israel has permitted almost daily truck shipments of food and medicine. But Human Rights Watch said Israel’s daily three-hour break in attacks to facilitate the supply of humanitarian aid to Gazans was “woefully insufficient.”

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Adam Entous in Jerusalem, and by Beirut and Cairo bureaubureaux; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Katie Nguyen