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10-day truce proposed in talks with Hamas, Israel

CAIRO (AP)Egypt and Hamas are close to a deal for a 10-day cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group in Gaza, where the death toll from the Israeli offensive exceeded 1,000, officials said Wednesday.

Egyptian and Hamas officials expressed optimism that an agreement for a temporary halt in fighting could be sealed soon and presented to Israel. But even if all sides sign on, further talks will be needed to resolve contentious disputes over policing Gaza's borders and ensure a longer-term truce.

"We're working with Hamas and we're working with the Israeli side. We hope to reach an outcome soon," Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Nine Israeli human rights groups accused the army of endangering Gazan civilians and called for a war crimes investigation. The groups wrote to Israeli leaders that the Gaza campaign has left civilians with nowhere to flee. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Israel supports freedom of expression, even if an opinion "is not based on any solid evidence and even if it is tainted with political bias."

Guerrillas in Lebanon sent rockets crashing into northern Israel on Wednesday for the second time in a week, drawing an Israeli artillery barrage and threatening to drag the Jewish state into a second front.

Egyptian and Hamas officials held intensive talks in Cairo. Late Wednesday, Salah al-Bardawil, a Gaza-based Hamas official, stopped short of saying Hamas had accepted the Egyptian proposal. He told reporters that "we submitted our points of view" on the proposed deal, adding, "We hope that this Egyptian effort will succeed."

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Ghazi Hamad, another Gaza-based Hamas official, told the BBC, "I am optimistic now because I think there is no other choice for us. ... This kind of agreement can be done now, and I think now there is good progress in Egypt. We hope that now Egypt will contact Israel and talk about all issues."

But there were signs Hamas' leadership-in-exile had reservations. Osama Hamdan, a leading Hamas official in Beirut, said there were still points Hamas had not agreed to. "We do not agree with the initiative as it stands now," he told Al-Jazeera TV.

The contradictory comments were the latest sign of cracks between Hamas leaders under fire in Gaza and the leadership-in-exile, which is largely based in Syria and is seen as more hard-line. Hamas officials, however, insist that the movement is unified, and it was not clear if Hamdan's tougher tone was a negotiating tactic or a sign of division.

Israel launched its offensive Dec. 27 to halt years of Palestinian rocket attacks. It has said it will press forward until Hamas halts the rocket fire and receives guarantees that Hamas will stop smuggling weapons into Gaza through the porous Egyptian border.

The offensive has killed at least 1,025 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, including 300 children and teenagers, said Dr. Moaiya Hassanain of the Gaza Health Ministry. The toll included 68 Palestinians who were killed or died of wounds Wednesday. More than 4,500 Palestinians have been wounded, medical officials said. Thirteen Israelis have also been killed, four by rocket fire from Gaza.

Jakob Kellenberger, head of the international Red Cross, welcomed the three-hour daily lulls in the fighting set by Israelis to let groups send in aid and assist the wounded in Gaza, but he said more time was needed.

"You must have access at any time to people who are wounded," he said.

Israel showed no signs of slowing its bruising offensive as fighting raged early Thursday north and south of Gaza City, where explosions and gunfire could be heard. Hospital officials said seven people were killed — four militants shortly after midnight in southern Gaza and three people an hour later in Gaza City.

On Wednesday, Israel struck some 60 targets. One airstrike hit an overcrowded cemetery, spreading human remains over a wide area. The army said the airstrike targeted a weapons cache hidden near the graveyard. And two firefighters were killed in an airstrike as they extinguished a blaze started by a shell in a residential building, Palestinian medics said.

Under the Egyptian proposal, Hamas would back off its demand that Israeli troops withdraw from Gaza and borders be opened immediately as part of any halt in fighting.

Instead, Israeli forces would remain in place during a 10-day cease-fire until details on border security are worked out, Egyptian and Palestinian officials close to the talks told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity to provide details of the closed-door negotiations.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met late Wednesday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to discuss the cease-fire efforts. In a sign of progress, Israel's chief negotiator, Amos Gilad, planned to fly to Egypt on Thursday to present Israel's stance, a senior defense official said. Gilad had put off the trip in recent days, saying the time was not yet ripe.

A senior Israeli official said it was far from certain that Israel would accept the deal. He said Israel welcomed many parts of the plan, but is concerned that Hamas will not respect a cease-fire as long as troops are in Gaza. The Israeli officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. Israel has made clear that the Cairo talks are key to determining whether it widens its offensive.

Israeli leaders signaled that they have crippled Hamas to their satisfaction after 19 days of heavy bombardment and ground fighting, but were holding out for international guarantees that weapons would no longer be smuggled into Gaza.

The rocket fire from Lebanon caused no injuries, but sent residents scurrying to bomb shelters. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, and speculation focused on small Palestinian groups. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed guerrilla group that fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006, denied involvement in last week's attack.

In a Web audiotape Wednesday, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden urged Muslims to launch a holy war against Israel. Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a religious opinion, or fatwa, forbidding the purchase of any Israeli goods or trade with Israeli companies.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened a visit to the Mideast on Wednesday, urging an immediate halt to the violence.

"It is intolerable that civilians bear the brunt of this conflict," he said after talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "Negotiations need to be intensified to provide arrangements and guarantees in order to sustain an endurable cease-fire and calm."

Ban is scheduled to arrive Thursday in Israel. He will also visit Jordan, the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait. His itinerary does not include a stop in Gaza because of the ongoing conflict.

In Paris, the French and German foreign ministers urged an immediate Gaza cease-fire, saying in a statement that such a measure would "provide space to address the humanitarian crisis."

Meanwhile, both Venezuela and Bolivia broke diplomatic ties with Israel over Gaza, a week after Venezuela expelled Israel's ambassador. Both Latin nations have cultivated ties to Iran, which supports Hamas.

If a cease-fire is reached, it would aim to give 10 days of quiet to work out the contentious issues of a longer truce, according to the framework outlined by the Egyptian and Palestinian officials close to the talks.

During that time, Egyptian, Turkish and other international mediators would try to negotiate an arrangement for policing Gaza's borders — particularly those with Egypt — to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory, the officials said.

This would likely entail some kind of international monitors on the Palestinian side of the border — but the two sides remain far apart on who would make up the force, where they would be deployed and their mission.

Hamas has so far publicly resisted deploying international monitors and has demanded a role in policing the borders. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group and has always rejected a policing role.

Only after a deal on border security has been reached would the crossings be opened and Israel withdraw, the officials said.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit underlined that all elements must fall into place — the cease-fire, the security arrangements, and the eventual opening of border crossings and Israeli withdrawal. Otherwise, "we will end up with a truce but without reconciliation or with a truce that will be broken," he said.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah called for a meeting of Gulf countries on Gaza Thursday, while Qatar sought an emergency summit Friday of the Arab League. Arab countries have been struggling with how to address the crisis, with some pushing for a strong response against Israel and others willing to put more pressure on Hamas.

Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a BBC interview that Hamas is ready for a "sustainable cease-fire," and Syria is working for a truce, the first indication Syria was involved in the cease-fire effort. Assad expressed concern that the fighting could fuel extremism and terrorism around the Arab world.

Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said the army has destroyed 60 percent to 70 percent of the smuggling tunnels along the Egyptian border. She also said Israel has reduced Hamas' rocket capabilities by 90 percent, from about 200 a day before the offensive to 20 or 30 each day.

Hamas militants fired a phosphorus shell into Israel for the first time, hitting a field near the border town of Sderot but causing no casualties, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

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