GAZA/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — A Hamas official said Egyptian mediators had clinched a truce with Israel on Tuesday that would go into effect within hours, but Egypt and Israel said a Gaza ceasefire deal was still up in the air after a week of fighting.
“The talks are still continuing,” an Egyptian official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters. He said Cairo was hopeful of an agreement soon.
Israel pressed on with its strikes in Gaza on the seventh day of its offensive and Palestinian rockets still flashed across the border as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to the region after attending an Asian summit.
Israel launched the campaign last week with the declared aim of halting the rocketing of its towns from the Palestinian enclave, ruled by Hamas.
Medical officials in Gaza said 21 Palestinians were killed on Tuesday. An Israeli soldier and a civilian died when rockets exploded near the Gaza frontier, the Israeli army said.
Gaza medical officials say 130 people were killed in Israeli strikes, mostly civilians, including 31 children. In all, five Israelis have died, including three civilians killed last week.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was open to a long-term deal aimed at ending Palestinian rocket attacks that have plagued its southern region for years.
Khaled Mishaal, exile leader of Hamas, said on Monday that Israel must halt its military action and lift its blockade of the Palestinian coastal enclave in exchange for a truce.
Both Netanyahu, favoured to win a January national election, and US President Barack Obama have said they want a diplomatic solution, rather than a possible Israeli ground operation in the densely populated territory, home to 1.7 million Palestinians.
Speaking to Reuters from Cairo, where intensive efforts have been under way to end the violence, Hamas official Ayman Taha said “an agreement for calm has been reached”.
He said it would be declared at 9:00pm (1900 GMT) — though no deal was announced as the clock ticked past that hour — and take effect at midnight (2200 GMT).
Netanyahu spokesperson Mark Regev told Reuters that Taha’s announcement was premature and Israeli military operations in Gaza would continue in parallel with diplomacy: “We’re not there yet,” Regev said on CNN. “The ball’s still in play.”
Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri, speaking after Taha made his remarks, said the group was still waiting to hear whether Israel would accept the terms of a deal: “Cairo informed us they expect the response to be positive,” Abu Zuhri said.
Israel’s military on Tuesday targeted about 100 sites in Gaza, including ammunition stores and the Gaza headquarters of the National Islamic Bank.
Israeli police said more than 150 rockets were fired from Gaza by the evening.
“No country would tolerate rocket attacks against its cities and against its civilians. Israel cannot tolerate such attacks,” Netanyahu said with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who arrived in Jerusalem from talks in Cairo, at his side.
“If a long-term solution can be put in place through diplomatic means, then Israel would be a willing partner to such a solution,” he said. “But if stronger military action proves necessary to stop the constant barrage of rockets, Israel will do what is necessary to defend our people.”
After nightfall, Israel stepped up its Gaza bombardment. Artillery shells and missiles fired from naval gunboats slammed into the territory and air strikes came at a frequency of about one every 10 minutes.
In an attack claimed in Gaza by Hamas’ armed wing, a longer-range rocket targeted Jerusalem on Tuesday for the second time since Israel launched the air offensive.
The rocket, which fell harmlessly in the occupied West Bank, triggered warning sirens in the city about the time Ban arrived for truce discussions. Another rocket damaged an apartment building in Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv.
Rockets fired at the two big cities over the past week were the first to reach them in decades.
Along Israel’s sandy, fenced-off border with the Gaza Strip, tanks, artillery and infantry massed in field encampments awaiting any orders to go in. Some 45,000 reserve troops have been called up since the offensive was launched.
A delegation of nine Arab ministers, including Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, visited Gaza in a further signal of heightened Arab solidarity with the Palestinians.
Egypt has been a key player in efforts to end the most serious fighting between Israel and Palestinian fighters since a three-week Israeli invasion of the enclave in the winter of 2008/09.
Egypt has a 1979 peace treaty with Israel seen by the West as the cornerstone of Middle East peace.