Hamas leader Meshaal rejects Israel conditions on ceasefire
At a meeting of Arab leaders in Qatar, Khaled Meshaal, head of the exiled Hamas politburo, said the group rejected Israel's ceasefire conditions. Israel continued to ratchet up the pressure on Hamas with continued attacks on Gaza.
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"Ceasefire talks gain steam, but outcome uncertain" (to read more click here)
AFP - Israel again pounded Gaza on Friday, seeking to ratchet up pressure on Hamas to bow to truce efforts gathering pace in Egypt to end the deadliest assault the Jewish state has ever launched on the enclave.
Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal told an Arab meeting in Doha that it would not accept any ceasefire that did not provide for a full Israeli pullout and the opening of Gaza's borders, including the Rafah crossing with Egypt.
"I assure you: despite all the destruction in Gaza, we will not accept Israel's conditions for a ceasefire," he told an emergency Arab League summit shortly before Hamas was invited back to Cairo for a fresh round of talks.
Israeli envoy Amos Gilad returned from Cairo after further discussions of Egypt's truce plan as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni headed to the United States to sign an agreement on preventing arms smuggling from Egypt to Gaza.
Clamping down on the porous Gaza-Egypt border, where hundreds of underground tunnels form Hamas's main rear supply route, has been a key Israeli demand for ending the offensive that has killed more than 1,100 people in 21 days.
"We hope we're heading toward the end," government spokesman Mark Regev told AFP. "There is a lot of diplomatic activity and at the same time the military pressure on Hamas continues."
Visiting UN chief Ban Ki-moon said that a deal on a truce appeared "very close" and that he hoped it could be sealed within a couple of days.
Calling Israel's offensive an "unprecedented catastrophe," Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad appealed for an immediate halt to the fighting.
"Each passing hour means more people die," he said.
But a senior Israeli official told AFP that the government did not intend to lessen its military strikes in the impoverished territory.
"The prime minister believes that the army should continue pressing Hamas in order to consolidate the gains made so far and guarantee that any ceasefire reached will be long-lasting," he said on condition of anonymity.
A day after Israeli raids set landmark buildings ablaze in Gaza's main city, the military hammered the territory with some 40 air strikes against fighters, tunnels and a mosque suspected of being used as a weapons store, the army said.
Israeli tanks meanwhile withdrew at dawn from the Gaza City neighbourhood of Tal Al-Hawa, where heavy fighting the previous day levelled parts of the residential area and set a hospital ablaze.
At least 23 bodies were pulled from the rubble in Tal Al-Hawa and elsewhere after medics rushed to the neighbourhood, the site of furious clashes that sent hundreds of terrified civilians fleeing for safety.
Israel on Thursday killed Hamas interior minister Said Siam, the most senior Islamist leader killed since the start of Operation Cast Lead on December 27.
Thousands attended his funeral Friday before marching through the streets with his body draped in a green Hamas flag. "With our souls, with our blood, We sacrifice for you Abu Musaab!" they said, referring to the Hamas strongman.
The war has sparked widespread protests and on Friday the Israeli army killed a 15-year-old Palestinian teenager on the sidelines of a demonstration in the West Bank town of Hebron, medics said.
At least 1,143 Palestinians have been killed and another 5,130 wounded in the Israeli onslaught, according to Gaza medics. Some 600 civilians have been slain, including 355 children, they said.
On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and three civilians have been killed as a result of combat or rocket fire.
Israel says its offensive is intended to stop the rockets but Gaza militants have continued the fire on southern Israel, launching more than 700 rockets and mortar rounds during the assault.
Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June 2007 in a violent coup that ousted forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, wants to be represented at Gaza's Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
Israel however has demanded that the border be monitored by Abbas's forces, and has rejected the Hamas proposal for a year-long renewable ceasefire, according to an Israeli diplomatic source close to the Egyptian talks.
Russia, which is one of the few world powers to have dealings with Hamas, has urged the group's backers Iran and Syria to pressure it to accept the Egyptian-brokered truce plan.
The offensive has prompted fears of a humanitarian crisis in one of the world's most densely populated territories where the vast majority of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid.
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