CAIRO — Israel and the Islamist group Hamas inched closer Tuesday to agreeing to an Egyptian-negotiated cease-fire that would end a weeklong Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip that’s killed at least 116 Palestinians and threatened to devolve into all-out war. Both sides suggested that the announcement of the cease-fire could come as soon as Wednesday.
With a cessation of hostilities possibly just hours away, both sides stepped up their attacks late Tuesday, with artillery fire so intense near the Israeli town of Erez on the Gaza border that computers were shaken from tables by the vibrations from outgoing shells.
“Each side will keep shooting until the last possible moment,” said one Israeli military official currently based along the Gaza border, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to a reporter. “We each have to show that we didn’t retreat first.”
Meanwhile, Gaza militants launched scores of rockets, including one that struck the southern Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion. No injuries were reported.
As the final details of the cease-fire apparently were being refined, both sides claimed victory. Israel said the weeklong assault on Gaza had improved security for thousands of Israelis who’ve been targeted by Hamas-fired rockets. Hamas said the fighting had given it greater legitimacy among the Arab nations.
The United States, which was uncharacteristically on the sidelines, appeared to have successfully played a limited but key role in finalizing the deal.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who rushed to Jerusalem from Phenom Penh, Cambodia, where she and President Barack Obama were attending a summit of Asian leaders, met for two hours with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The State Department’s description of the meeting afterward suggested that the cease-fire agreement would be a broad one, dealing not just with the halting the violence, but with finding “a sustainable outcome that protects Israel's security and improves the lives of civilians in Gaza.”
A senior Israeli military official told McClatchy that the military had accomplished “all it could” given the situation and that “deterrence had been established,” a reference to the Israeli claim that its assault had been intended to stop rocket attacks from Gaza.
Hamas officials in Gaza told McClatchy they “had fought brave and well” and that their rockets had “struck deep into the heart of Israel,” bringing war to a part of Israel that previously had been immune to Gaza-based violence.
One Hamas official who’s been privy to the cease-fire talks in Egypt but who wasn’t authorized to speak to members of the news media said, “Hamas has shown itself to be strong and powerful. We stood up to Israel and achieved success.” He added that a string of visits by foreign officials from across the Arab world had given Hamas “a boost to keep going.”
Clinton’s hastily arranged trip to the region, which will include a joint appearance with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in Cairo Wednesday afternoon, may have given both sides new incentive to reach a deal without appearing to lean on the United States. After five days, the talks had appeared to have stalled.
Before her meeting with Netanyahu, Clinton had called for a “comprehensive peace.”
“President Obama asked me to come to Israel with a very clear message: America’s commitment to Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering. That is why we believe it is essential to de-escalate the situation in Gaza,” Clinton said at a joint news conference with Netanyahu. “The rocket attacks from terrorist organizations inside Gaza on Israeli cities and towns must end and a broader calm restored. The goal must be a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security and legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
Clinton also was expected to visit Ramallah, the West Bank city that’s the capital of the Palestinian Authority – the Palestinian government that Israel and the United States recognize – before traveling on to Cairo.
One State Department official, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to a reporter, said Clinton had no specific agenda other than encouraging the sides to reach agreement. "Sometimes there’s no substitute for showing up," the official said.
The hours leading up to what should have been a heralded deal Tuesday night only underscored how precarious the agreement remains. Even as talk of a cease-fire grew, Israel continued its aerial and sea bombardment of Gaza, intended to cripple Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel. The Israeli military reported its first death in the conflict, an 18-year-old soldier. Three other Israelis died last week when a Hamas-fired rockets struck an office building.
Earlier Tuesday night, both sides disagreed on whether they had in fact reached a consensus. The Israelis wanted to wait until they were sure the agreement had Clinton’s backing and endorsement, Egyptian officials said; Israel refused to agree to the deal, Hamas charged; Israel wanted a 24-hour truce first, one Israeli spokesman said.
It seemed the only thing they agreed on was not to trust each other, whatever the terms.
“The parties are hesitant to make agreements because they have no faith, no trust,” an Egyptian official close to the negotiations told McClatchy. He, too, requested that he not be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to a reporter.
“It could take days, weeks or months for Israel and Gaza to resolve the details of this deal,” said one Israeli political official in Jerusalem, who also spoke anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the agreement publicly. “But the truth is that they will probably never resolve them all. Both sides are just buying some quiet.”
Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense started seven days ago, when Israel assassinated top Hamas leader Ahmed Jabari.
Israel’s chief demand was a long-term truce between the two sides, in which all militant groups in Gaza must agree not to open fire on Israel, an Israeli official told McClatchy. Other terms still being negotiated are a demand by Israel that Hamas stop smuggling weapons into Gaza, and a demand by Hamas that Israel lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
The official confirmed that another demand that was “on the table” was an enlarged buffer zone between Israel and Gaza.
Palestinian officials, meanwhile, said the key sticking point was the lifting of a five-year blockade on Gaza by Israel, and the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. The Hamas leadership also wanted to secure a promise from Israel that none of its political or military leaders would be under threat from targeted assassinations.
Egypt, which has been navigating Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood’s longtime support of Hamas and its practical interests in stability in the region, had sought to show that while the face of the government had changed, Egypt’s interests and role as a peace broker had not. Successful negotiations also would solidify Morsi’s place as an international leader.
But throughout the week, there have been questions about whether Egypt could lead a deal without U.S. intervention. On Monday, President Barack Obama called Morsi and Netanyahu. Shortly afterward, the White House announced that Clinton would travel to the region immediately. Obama spoke to Morsi for a third time Tuesday, the second call between the two leaders in less than 24 hours.
Earlier Tuesday, Egyptian officials hinted at a possible agreement. As he was leaving his sister’s funeral, Morsi told attendees that "aggression on Gaza will end today and efforts to reach a truce will yield positive results in a few coming hours,” according to the state news service.
Yet soon after Morsi spoke, Israel began dropping leaflets on Gaza urging residents to evacuate to city centers. On Tuesday at least eight people were killed, including two cameramen from the Hamas-owned television station al Aqsa. Sirens sounded across southern Israeli communities as rockets launched by militants in Gaza struck several cities, including the Rishon Lezion suburb of Tel Aviv.
Residents of Israel’s battered south had mixed reactions to talk of a cease-fire.
In Rishon Lezion, the rocket struck a four-story building, injuring several people. It was the first rocket to cause damage in central Israel.
“It just feels so different now knowing that Hamas can reach Tel Aviv,” said Chava Mayiri, a 32-year-old mother of two. “I don’t know what we accomplished in these seven days other than to kill some of their men and to establish that the next time those of us in Tel Aviv have to clean out our bunkers.”
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.
Special correspondent Frenkel reported from Erez, Israel. Twitter: @nancyayoussef, @sheeraf