An End in Sight? Israel, Hamas to Hammer Out Cease-Fire

With Israeli forces all but surrounding Gaza City today, Tel Aviv agreed to send its chief negotiator to Egypt, offering the hope that a truce might be reached soon to end the 18-day-old conflict that has left hundreds of people dead.

Egyptian mediators pushed Hamas delegates, who have been in talks with Egypt's powerful intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, to accept conditions for a truce. The militant group has been hammering out the technicalities of a deal to end the fighting, including open border crossings and instituting a monitoring mechanism to ensure Hamas will not rearm in the future.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a supporter of the Egyptian proposal, headed to Cairo to join the negotiations today, making a plea to both sides to allow humanitarian aid to get into Gaza and to stop firing rockets into Israel.

"To both sides, I say, just stop, now," he said. "Too many people have died. There has been too much civilian suffering."

Israeli defense ministry official Amos Gilad is scheduled to arrive in Cairo Thursday for what Israeli officials called "decisive" talks to hammer out a cease-fire deal with Hamas, according to The Associated Press.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that "most" of Israel's military objectives had been achieved, though "probably not all of them."

As diplomats got bogged down in the details of a deal, the Israeli military expanded its offensive. Tanks and armored personnel carriers edged into the Tel Hawwa neighborhood on the city's southern fringes. Dozens of homes were destroyed and hundreds of Palestinian civilians left, seeking refuge further away from the fighting.

Resident Khader Mussa, 35, told The Associated Press that he waved a white flag as he ran from his house to a shelter in his brother's basement along with his pregnant and wife and his parents.

"Thank God we survived this time and got out alive from here," he said. "But I don't know how long we'll be safe in my brother's home."

Palestinian medical sources said at least 16 Palestinians had been killed in overnight fighting and at least 42 died today from the conflict, bringing the Palestinian toll to more than 900 -- half of them civilians.

The Israeli military said it hit 60 Hamas targets in the latest push on the 18th day of its offensive in Gaza. It said it killed about 30 militants during the last 24 hours of fighting.

Palestinian rocket fire has waned since the conflict's start – 15 rockets were fired at Israel today, resulting in no injuries.

The fighting continues to cause tension throughout the region and Israeli authorities reported today that a Jordanian soldier opened fire on an Israeli border patrol near the Arava Crossing, just north of the Red Sea port of Eilat. The Jordanians deny the reports.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left late today on a previously unannounced trip to Riyadh to meet with ally Saudi King Abdullah to brief him on the efforts to persuade Hamas to accept an immediate cease-fire, Egyptian officials said.

Little Public Progress

Suleiman accompanied Mubarak on the trip, leaving his aides to hold additional talks with Hamas this evening, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

In Damascus, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister's top foreign policy adviser, met for the third time in two days with Hamas' exiled political leader Khaled Mashaal about truce proposals.

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