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.

But, so far, the push has yielded little public progress. A Palestinian official close to Hamas said the previous round of Egypt-Hamas talks Sunday was "stormy."

In Israel, political and military leaders continued to take an aggressive line. Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited an Israeli air base today to congratulate Israeli pilots. He said Israel was fully engaged in the diplomatic track but would continue to prosecute the war against Hamas.

"We heard yesterday, and respect, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's appeal and we are closely following the progress on the Egyptian truce initiative, but the fighting goes on and the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] continues to operate our troops," Barak told reporters.

More Fighting to Come

On a brief morale-boosting trip inside the Gaza Strip, Israeli chief of staff Lt. General Gabi Askenazi also took time to congratulate the troops and warn of more fighting to come.

"The soldiers are doing an extraordinary job. We have made many achievements in damaging Hamas and its infrastructure, its regime and its military wing but there is still much to be done," he said.

There is growing confidence in Israel that its army is on the verge of defeating Hamas and restoring Israel's power of deterrence, something many Israelis believed was dented during the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hamas Leader Looks Pale, Tired

From an undisclosed location in Gaza Monday night, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh delivered a speech on Hamas' Al Aqsa TV station. He said Hamas would continue the fight but was also pursuing diplomacy to end the fighting.

"As we are in the middle of this crisis, we tell our people we, God willing, are closer to victory," he said. "All the blood that is being shed will not go to waste."

According to most Israeli newspaper analysts, Haniyeh looked pale and tired. Israel accuses Hamas' leaders of taking shelter in an underground bunker beneath Gaza's biggest hospital, a claim that is unverified.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.