UN chief says elements in place for violence to end 'now'
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UN chief Ban Ki-moon said in Tel Aviv that the basic elements are in place for the violence in Gaza "to end now." Senior Israeli envoys are in Cairo for talks following reports that Hamas has accepted an Egypt-backed draft agreement.
Israeli tanks lunged deepest yet into Gaza's cities, sparking ferocious battles with Hamas on Thursday even as hopes rose for a truce to end the war that has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Tel Aviv and Israel sent senior envoys to Egypt and the United States amid a diplomatic push to end the 20-day-old war launched to stop Hamas rocket fire, in which an estimated 600 civilians have died.
Ban said on Thursday that elements were in place for Israel's 20-day-old war in Gaza to end "now."
"I believe that elements are in place for the violence to end now," he said.
"The time has come for the violence to stop and for us to change fundamentally the dynamics in Gaza and to pursue again the peace talks for a two-state solution which is the only road for lasting security for Israel," told reporters in Tel Aviv.
Egypt has been spearheading Western-backed ceasefire efforts and Israeli envoy Amos Gilad was to be briefed on developments in Cairo on Thursday after Hamas was reported to have accepted the draft.
The Islamists who rule the Gaza Strip however indicated only support for its "broad outlines."
On the ground in Gaza, battles raged as tanks advanced into the heart of the Tal Al-Hawa neighbourhood in the southwest outskirts of Gaza's main population centre, sending hundreds of terrified civilians fleeing.
Hamas gunmen fired at the advancing troops with anti-tank rockets and mortars and thick columns of black smoke rose into the sky above Gaza City in the south, east and north.
At least 32 people have died in Gaza on Thursday, including a woman and her three children in Beit Lahiya, but the exact number of casualties was not immediately clear as the clashes blocked ambulances from reaching the wounded, medics said.
Dozens of families sheltered inside the Al-Quds Hospital in Tal Al-Hawa after tanks rumbled in after dawn.
"I brought the children to the hospital because they were scared at home, but here they are even more terrified," 40-year-old Hossein said as he huddled with his wife and five children in the pediatric ward.
"We can't take this any longer. Look at my children, they're trembling," he said as explosions ripped through the air like thunderclaps and Israeli troops and Hamas fighters clashes less than 300 metres (yards) away.
Israeli warplanes pummelled the densely-populated territory with some 70 strikes overnight, targetting Palestinian fighters, rocket launching sites and weapon storage sites, including a mosque in the south, the army said.
Militants in Gaza fired 17 rockets and mortars into Israel in the space of several hours in the morning, it said.
Since Israel unleashed its Operation Cast Lead on December 27, at least 1,065 people have been killed and another 5,000 wounded, according to Gaza medics. Among the dead are at least 355 children, 100 women, 117 elderly men and 12 medics, they say.
On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and three civilians have died as a result of combat or rocket fire.
In an article published Thursday in Britain's Independent newspaper, Hamas prime minister in Gaza Ismail Haniya spelled out the Islamists' conditions for a truce and appealed to the West to stop Israel's offensive.
"Israel must end its criminal war and slaughter of our people, lift completely and unconditionally its illegal siege of the Gaza Strip, open all our border crossings and completely withdraw from Gaza," Haniya wrote.
"After this we would consider future options," said Haniya.
Although Egyptian and Spanish diplomats said on Wednesday that Hamas had accepted Egypt's truce plan, a Gaza-based leader of the Islamist group said after talks with officials in Cairo that it did not reject its "broad outlines," without accepting the plan outright.
A senior US State Department official told AFP that more work needed to be done before a truce could be reached in the fighting.
"It's not a done deal yet. They're still working it. There are a number of Hamas conditions that are having to be dealt with," he said.
Israel has made stopping its deadliest offensive on Gaza conditional on a complete halt to rocket fire from the territory and a stem to arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.
It has sent Aharon Abramovitz, a senior aide to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to Washington to discuss what guarantees the Jewish state's closest ally could give on preventing arms smuggling.
A senior Israeli defence official told AFP on Wednesday that the war could continue as long as the January 20 inauguration of US president-elect Barack Obama.
Amid the diplomatic push on Thursday are emergency sessions of the UN General Assembly and Gulf Cooperation Council.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was also in Israel for talks.
Israel's offensive has sparked widespread concern about a humanitarian crisis in one of the world's most densely populated places where the vast majority of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid.
As part of the fallout from the offensive, Venezuela and Bolivia have severed ties with the Jewish state.
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