Page last updated at 09:29 GMT, Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Pressure grows for Gaza ceasefire

An Israeli soldier on Israel's southern border with the Gaza Strip, 7 January 2009
Israel says it is defending itself against terrorists

Pressure is building on Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas to accept a ceasefire deal backed by the UN and the US to end fighting in Gaza.

The plan, proposed by Egypt and France, calls for an immediate ceasefire to allow more aid into the Gaza Strip, and talks with Israel on border security.

It follows one of the deadliest days since the offensive began, with more than 130 people killed on Tuesday.

Israel has said it will halt its attacks on Gaza for three hours a day.

The pause, the first of which is due to start at 1100 GMT (1300) on Wednesday, will "allow residents to resupply, get aid and so on", an IDF spokesman said.

Overnight, Israeli forces launched 40 fresh air strikes in Gaza.

Israeli media reports say nine rockets were fired into southern Israel from Gaza early on Wednesday.

Civilian deaths

Little official detail has been given about the French-Egyptian proposal, but diplomats say it centres around measures to halt weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza, coupled with moves to ease the blockade.

Israel's security cabinet is meeting to consider the deal, but ministers are also expected to discuss expanding operations.

map of Gaza

A Palestinian official said Gaza's Hamas rulers, who want an end to Israel's blockade of the enclave, were briefed in Egypt by President Hosni Mubarak and were debating the proposal, the Reuters news agency reported.

Israel wants to stop rocket attacks on southern Israel and to stop Hamas smuggling weapons into Gaza via Egypt, while Hamas says any ceasefire deal must include an end to Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip.

More than 600 Palestinians are now believed to have been killed since Israel began its offensive 11 days ago.

Palestinian health ministry officials say at least 195 children are among those killed.

An Israeli attack on Tuesday on a UN-run school building, being used to shelter people who had fled their homes, killed 40 people, UN officials say.

The Israeli military said its soldiers had come under mortar fire from Hamas militants inside the school.

Unrwa spokesman Christopher Gunness said the agency was certain Hamas militants were not using its school to attack Israeli troops.

A spokesman for Hamas denied there had been any hostile fire coming from the school.

Israel has lost seven soldiers on the ground. Four people within Israel have been killed by rockets.

At least five hit southern Israel on Tuesday, one of them injuring a baby.

Support for truce

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed the French-Egyptian plan, saying the US was "pleased by and wish[es] to commend... that initiative".

Israel's ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, did not say whether Israel would accept the proposal but said it would take it "very, very seriously".

The contours of a possible diplomatic agreement are in place, the BBC's Laura Trevelyan reports from the UN.

Smoke rises over Gaza (06/01/2009)

However, if Israel continues to control the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza and can choose to stop it at any time this seems unlikely to command the support of Hamas, our correspondent notes.

Andrew Whitley of the UN relief agency Unrwa told the BBC that any relief in the conditions of the people of Gaza could only be a good thing.

"People have been weakened by 18 months of blockade and siege. They've been getting very little food, electricity or heat for a long time, and so they are in a very weakened condition," he said.

Casualty claims in Gaza cannot be independently verified. Israel is refusing to let international journalists into Gaza, despite a supreme court ruling to allow a limited number of reporters to enter the territory.

Update: In February 2009, the United Nations said that a clerical error had led it to report that Israeli mortars had struck a UN-run school in Jabaliya, Gaza, on 6 January killing about 40 people. Maxwell Gaylord, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Jerusalem, said that the Israeli Defense Force mortars fell in the street near the compound, and not on the compound itself. He said that the UN "would like to clarify that the shelling and all of the fatalities took place outside and not inside the school".

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