Despite hard-line comments by Hamas' Syrian-based leader, Israel was poised Saturday to agree to a cease-fire in Gaza, with government spokesman Mark Regev saying he was hopeful that Israel is "entering the endgame" on its Gaza offensive.
A "sustained and durable" stop to Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel was near, Regev said, and the Israeli Security Cabinet had scheduled a vote for Saturday on a truce proposed by Egypt. If approved, a truce summit would follow in Cairo with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Under the cease-fire plan, fighting would stop immediately for 10 days, but Israeli forces initially would remain in Gaza and the border crossings into the territory would remain closed until security arrangements are made to ensure Hamas militants don't rearm.
Hamas' political chief rejected Israel's conditions, but negotiators for the Islamic militant group were in behind-the-scenes contact with mediators in Cairo and signaled it was time for a truce.
"If they are ready, we are ready," Usama Hamdan, a top Hamas figure, told Sky News.
Meanwhile, Israeli aircraft pounded 50 Hamas positions early Saturday, maintaining pressure on the Islamic militant group.
Palestinian officials reported heavy clashes with Israeli troops. In Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical workers said an Israeli tank shell killed six when it landed near a U.N. school.
Near Gaza City, Palestinian officials said three more civilians were killed by a naval shell. The U.N. and the Israeli military has no immediate comment.
The military said its planes struck 50 Hamas locations overnight, including rocket-launching sites, smuggling tunnels, weapons storehouses, bunkers and minefields. There were no reports of Palestinian rocket fire.
On Friday, the Bush administration signed a last-minute deal with Israel aimed at cutting off the supply of smuggled weapons to Hamas and boosting Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire to end fighting in Gaza.
At a hastily arranged State Department ceremony, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who arrived in Washington just hours earlier, described the deal as "a vital complement for a cessation of hostility" in the troubled region.
The two-and-a-half page document outlines a framework under which the United States will provide military and intelligence assets, including detection and surveillance equipment, as well as logistical help and training to Israel, Egypt and other nations in the region. The equipment and training would be used for monitoring Gaza's land and sea borders.
A senior official said a decision to approve the truce would begin a phased process in which Israel stops fighting and gauges the reaction from Hamas militants. The official says that under this process, Israel would resume its offensive if the militants continue to fire rockets at Israel.
Less than two hours after Rice and Livni signed the document, the senior Israeli official said a Security Cabinet vote in favor of the truce would amount to a "unilateral" cease-fire, though Israeli forces would only leave Gaza after an official declaration that the fighting was over.
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Israel launched its military offensive Dec. 27 to try to halt rocket attacks on southern Israel by Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization and whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel.
Israel wants a total end to Hamas' rocket launches into Israel and an arms embargo on Gaza's militant rulers. Hamas has demanded an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the opening of blockaded border crossings.
"These are our demands and we don't accept any political movement that does not accept them," the movement's top political leader, Khaled Mashaal, said in a televised address from his headquarters in Damascus, Syria.
Following a day in which Israeli forces killed a senior Hamas official and shelled a U.N. compound, the Israeli military kept up its pressure on Hamas.
Before dawn Friday, Israeli aircraft struck about 40 targets all over Gaza, according to military officials speaking on condition of anonymity because no announcement had been made. They said targets included smuggling tunnels along the Egyptian border, a rocket launcher ready for firing, launching sites and weapons caches.
Militant rockets, meanwhile, struck six times in southern Israel, causing no injuries, the military said.
In the West Bank, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon urged Israel to immediately stop its three-week-old war, meant to halt militant rocket fire on southern Israel from Gaza.
"I strongly urge Israeli leadership and government to declare a cease-fire unilaterally," he said from Ramallah, the seat of the West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas' fierce rival. "It's time to think about a unilateral cease-fire from the Israeli government."
Palestinian doctors have said 1,133 Palestinians have been killed since Israel's offensive began and more than 5,000 are wounded.
Thursday's intense Israeli military activity in Gaza exacted a steep price from Hamas when Interior Minister Said Siam was killed in an airstrike. Siam was the commander of Hamas security forces including thousands of armed men and was widely feared in Gaza.
Siam was seen as a main architect of the violent Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, when Hamas fighters expelled forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Siam was the highest Hamas official killed in the offensive. "We are talking about a key person in terms of logistics in the field, and also in the political sense," said Bassem Zbeidy, a Hamas expert in the West Bank.
He said Siam's death was a "huge loss for Hamas," but noted that the movement is easily capable of generating new leaders, often more radical than their predecessors.
Hamas, whose charter specifically calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdon and the European Union and is banned in Jordan.
From 2000 to 2004, Hamas was responsible for killing nearly 400 Israelis and wounding more than 2,000 in 425 attacks, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
From 2001 through May 2008, Hamas launched more than 3,000 Qassam rockets and 2,500 mortar attacks against Israeli targets.