A French-Egyptian proposal for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and peace talks in Cairo between Israel and Palestinian factions appears to be gaining diplomatic traction. Israel has said it is considering the plan. It has also agreed to a daily three-hour pause in bombings to allow civilians to access essential supplies.
The diplomatic efforts come amid further bloody battles in Gaza. An Israeli attack on a United Nations-run school in northern Gaza killed more than 40 Palestinians. Israel's military said it fired on the building in response to Hamas rocket fire, one of 40 Israeli strikes on targets inside Gaza overnight Tuesday. Schools in Gaza are being used to shelter civilians fleeing the fighting, and the UN has denied that militants were present.
The Washington Post reports that the mortar attack on the school near Jabalya refugee camp is among the deadliest incidents in 11 days of fighting. The UN has called for an independent investigation and a diplomat condemned Israel and Hamas leaders for waging war in the impoverished territory. A senior hospital official said the Palestinian death toll in Gaza had reached 625, with more than 2,900 injured.
Tuesday's attack on the school came only hours after an Israeli missile struck a residential area in al-Bureij refugee camp, injuring seven U.N. workers in a nearby medical clinic, U.N. officials said. Late Monday, an Israeli airstrike on a U.N. school in Gaza City had killed three members of a family.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the attacks "totally unacceptable."
"After earlier strikes, the Israeli government was warned that its operations were endangering U.N. compounds," he said in a statement. "I am deeply dismayed that despite these repeated efforts, today's tragedies have ensued."
The Los Angeles Times reports that many families in Gaza have fled their homes since the conflict began. In some cases, houses are seen as unsafe because of their location near security force installations. Some have sought sanctuary in public shelters or moved to the homes of relatives.
But even many purely civilian neighborhoods aren't safe because Gaza militants often fire rockets from such areas and Israel continues to bomb the homes of Hamas commanders and buildings and mosques it believes are used as weapons storehouses. As a result, almost every neighborhood in Gaza is littered with sites that Israel considers legitimate military targets.
Israel's army said that among those who died at the school were "members of the military wing of the Hamas terror organization" who had fired on Israeli forces, Bloomberg reports. Israel says that Hamas and other militants use such civilian centers to launch attacks in a cynical effort to create human shields.
Israeli leaders say their offensive in Gaza is aimed at stopping rocket attacks by militants on Israeli civilians. On Dec. 27, the first day of the offensive, daily rocket attacks peaked at 76. That number is now fewer than 40. Up to 3,200 rockets and mortar shells have been fired into Israel since the start of 2008.
The Guardian reports that the latest cease-fire plan emerged after talks Tuesday between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak. Israel's cabinet was to meet Wednesday to consider the plan, as well as assess the military campaign in Gaza. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may opt to widen the offensive, however, despite the international pressure.
Sarkozy said he had presented the idea to Olmert. "I have good hope that the reaction of Israeli authorities will allow us to imagine an end to the operation they have undertaken in Gaza: that is, not only a ceasefire but a withdrawal."
The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, said she was "pleased" at the initiative, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, gave his support. Abbas had given an emotional appeal for a ceasefire to the UN security council. "Do not let one more Palestinian mother cry for her children. Do not allow it. Put an end to the massacre of my people. Let my people live, and let my people be free," he said.
Israel has yet to respond to the proposal but has been insisting in recent days that any deal must prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza across the Egyptian border.
Mr. Mubarak said the new plan includes a cease-fire for a specific period in order to allow the delivery of urgent aid and to give Egypt time to broker a permanent halt to hostilities, reports the Associated Press. The warring sides would meet to try to resolve underlying issues such as securing Gaza's borders, reopening crossings and ending Israel's "siege," he said. Egypt brokered a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel that expired last month.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the [UN] Security Council that the United States, Israel's closest ally, understands "the urgency of an end to the fighting" and is working around the clock to achieve it.
But she cautioned that any solution must include an end to Hamas rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel, the opening of all borders in Gaza, and an end to arms smuggling into the Palestinian territory.
Sakorzy also met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Tuesday during his diplomatic tour. Along with Iran, Syria is seen as a key backer of Hamas. In an interview with CNN, Mr. Assad said an Israeli pullout was needed to bring Hamas to the table.
"They are ready [to make a deal]," Al-Assad told CNN's Cal Perry in an exclusive interview. "They were ready, they are ready. Today, the factors have changed so the requirement will change at the same time.
"We cannot talk about the same condition, like what happened a few years ago. Otherwise, we'll keep moving from a cease-fire to another conflict to another breaking of this cease-fire and so on. The more blood you have, the more difficult to talk about peace will be."
Al Qaeda, on the other hand, in an Internet message posted Tuesday, called for strikes on Western and Israeli targets worldwide in retaliation for the Gaza conflict, according to Reuters. US President-elect Barack Obama received a pointed critique.
"Hit the interests of the Zionists and crusaders wherever and in whichever way you can," [Al Qaeda second-in-command] Ayman al-Zawahri said in an audio tape posted on Islamist websites....
"We are keen to realize the vow of our Sheikh Osama bin Laden ... that America or anyone living there won't be able to even dream of security until we truly experience it in Palestine and until all infidel armies leave the lands of (Prophet) Mohammad," Zawahri [sic] said, citing a bin Laden message in 2001.