GAZA (Reuters) - Israeli forces thrust deep into the city of Gaza on Thursday in what may be their final push against Islamist Hamas militants before agreeing to a ceasefire in the 20-day-old war.
After studying Hamas’s terms for a halt to the conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would fly to Washington to promote a key Israeli demand — a guaranteed end to Hamas weapons smuggling via Egypt.
But Olmert, following top-level talks, did not address conditions put forward by Hamas via Egyptian mediators. Some diplomats expected Israel would be cool to some of the terms.
Hamas proposed a year-long, renewable ceasefire, the withdrawal of all Israel forces within 5 to 7 days, and the immediate opening of all Gaza border crossings, backed by international guarantees they would stay open.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking earlier in Jerusalem, said the Israeli government was due to “make an important decision on a ceasefire” which he hoped would be the right one. Later he said it might take “a few more days.”
As hopes of a truce grew the sounds of fighting tapered off, after one of the heaviest days of the Israeli offensive.
The Palestinian death toll from the air-and-ground offensive was at least 1,105 with some 5,100 wounded, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. A Palestinian rights group said about 700 of the dead were civilians.
Thirteen Israelis have been killed, including 10 soldiers and three civilians hit by Hamas rocket fire.
In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, a target for assassination by Israel, reiterated his group’s demands.
“First, the aggression must stop; second, the Israeli forces must withdraw from Gaza ... immediately, of course; thirdly, the siege must be lifted and fourth we want all crossing-points reopened, first of which is Rafah (Egypt).”
In Gaza, Hamas interior minister Saeed Seyyam was killed by an Israeli air strike on a house in Jabalya refugee camp, along with his son, brother and half a dozen others. Seyyam oversaw 13,000 Hamas police and security men.
At least 15 Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks in Gaza city during the day, medical officials said. Israeli fire also hit a U.N. compound, a hospital and a TV office.
In a pool report from an Israel base just outside northern Gaza, Western correspondents quoted a young Israeli sergeant as saying Hamas fighters were “villagers with guns.”
“They don’t even aim when they shoot,” he said. “We kept saying Hamas was a strong terror organization but it was more easy than we thought it would be.”
A commander said: “I know that in the end Hamas will say they won ... Will they put down their weapons forever? For sure, no, but I think they have learned a lesson from this war.”
Israel insists Hamas must no longer be able to smuggle in weapons through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, and must end its rocket attacks on its southern towns.
In a step to bring a truce closer, the United States earlier told Israel it would be prepared to offer security guarantees. Olmert’s office said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told him “the United States would be prepared to assist in solving the issue of smuggling.”
About 25 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit southern Israel on Thursday, wounding six people, police said.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said its compound, where up to 700 Palestinians were sheltering, was struck twice by Israeli fire and three staff members were injured. Thick smoke rose from its food and fuel depot.
Ban ki-Moon called it an “outrage.” Olmert apologized but said it was prompted by fire from gunmen at the compound.
In Geneva, a spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said al-Quds hospital was hit by either Israeli shelling or air strikes.
No one was reported hurt at the hospital, but administrative offices were set ablaze and dozens of patients moved in panic to the ground floor, seeking safety.
A rocket hit the downtown Al-Shurouq Tower, where the Reuters bureau and other media offices are located. Gulf-based Abu Dhabi Television said it believed its two journalists were targeted by an Israeli aircraft as they filmed from the office.
A senior Western diplomat said Israel appeared to be seeking last-minute gains on the ground before a truce could be imposed.
“It’s a classic Israeli strategy,” the diplomat said. The Israeli military had no comment throughout the day on the attacks on the hospital and media offices.
Dozens of terrified residents of neighborhoods near the Gaza city center fled on foot. Thousands more huddled in their homes as explosions tore through rubble-strewn streets.
“It is a catastrophe,” one woman said, walking quickly with a child in her arms and two others running behind. “We took our money and passports. We have to carry some identification with us in case we get killed,” she said.
“Hamas can claim victory if it wants but we just need this bloodshed to end.”
Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki, Adam Entous and Lou Charbonneau in Jerusalem, and Cairo bureau; writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Matthew Jones