Hamas: Ceasefire with Israel to happen soon
JERUSALEM - Gaza militants said a Cairo-brokered truce in their seven-day war with Israel would be announced Tuesday night, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged them to choose between "the sword" and peace.
"There will be a joint press conference between Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Egyptian mediators tonight to announce the truce," an Islamic Jihad source told AFP in Gaza City, while a Hamas source confirmed the announcement.
Egypt, which has been leading efforts to secure a Gaza truce after nearly a week of cross-border violence, also said the Israeli "aggression" would end within hours, although the bloodshed showed no signs of abating.
At least 20 Palestinians were killed as Israeli air strikes rocked the Gaza Strip, medics in the Hamas-ruled territory said, and a rocket fired by Palestinian militants exploded near Jerusalem.
Soon after Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi predicted mediation efforts would imminently produce "positive results," Netanyahu said it was up to Hamas to choose between peace and further bloodshed.
"Our hand is outstretched in peace to those of our neighbours who want to make peace with us," Netanyahu said in a statement. "And the other hand is firmly grasping the sword of David."
A senior Hamas official told AFP in Cairo that a key sticking point was whether Israel would begin easing its six-year-old blockade of Gaza coinciding with the truce or at a later date.
"A compromise solution is for there to be agreement on lifting the siege, and that it would be implemented later at a specified time," he said.
The rocket fired at Jerusalem crashed into an olive grove near Jabba village, in an attack claimed by the armed wing of Hamas, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the second such attempt to hit Jerusalem in five days.
Nobody was hurt, but the sirens sparked panic in the Jerusalem.
In Gaza City, new air strikes killed 12 people after Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets urging people to evacuate their homes amid fears of an imminent ground invasion, Hamas's health ministry and ambulance services said.
Earlier, in a rare statement aired on Hamas television, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades commander Mohammed Deif said "the enemy will pay a heavy price if it thinks of entering Gaza."
The warning came after Netanyahu, who held a late-night inner-cabinet meeting Monday, delayed a decision on a ground offensive to give a chance for talks to solve a conflict that began last Wednesday with the killing of Deif's deputy, Ahmed Jaabari.
After the first night of the conflict without Palestinian deaths, the toll rose to more than 120 on Tuesday when another 20 people were killed, including a 15-year-old boy who was hunting birds, medics said.
Three Israelis have been killed in rocket fire from Gaza.
FLURRY OF DIPLOMACY
Netanyahu and his key ministers decided in their closed-door meeting to place "a temporary hold on a ground incursion to give diplomacy a chance to succeed," a senior Israeli official told AFP.
The move came as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon travelled from Cairo to Jerusalem and urged both sides to stop their fire "immediately".
The flurry of diplomatic activity has also seen US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cut short an Asia tour to head to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo, and Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi leading a solidarity visit to Gaza.
In New York meanwhile diplomats said the United States had blocked an Arab-sponsored statement on the Gaza conflict at the UN Security Council because it was "counter-productive" to the truce efforts.
Israel is looking for a 24- to 48-hour truce as a buffer to work out a more permanent arrangement, with Tuesday's talks "expected to be decisive," Haaretz newspaper said.
But it is pressing on with its troop buildup along the Gaza border regardless, said the senior Israeli official.
Hamas is understood to be seeking guarantees Israel will stop its targeted killings, and end its six-year blockade on the tiny coastal stretch of land, which is home to 1.6 million people.
Many families have fled their homes in northern Gaza, which has taken the brunt of the air strikes, to seek safe haven in the south.
Since the violence erupted on November 14, Gaza militants have fired more than 1,000 rockets at the Jewish state, killing three people and injuring dozens.
Of those, 715 have crashed into southern Israel and another 359 were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system.
The violence comes as Israel heads towards a general election in January, raising the spectre of a broader Israeli military campaign along the lines of its devastating 22-day Operation Cast Lead launched at the end of December 2008. - Agence France-Presse