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Gaza cease-fire could be imminent

ISRAEL said yesterday it hoped it was close to winding up the punishing offensive it launched three weeks ago in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and that it might make a decision on a cease-fire this weekend.

"I hope we are entering the end game and that our goal of sustained and durable quiet in the south (of Israel) is about to be attained," government spokesman Mark Regev said.

Israel embarked upon an air and ground war against Gaza militants on December 27 to stop the rocket fire that has traumatized southern Israel for years. But the spiraling Palestinian death toll, which includes hundreds of civilians, has drawn international outrage and touched off intense diplomatic activity to end the violence.

Israel wants militants to halt rocket fire and international guarantees that militants won't rearm before it agrees to a truce.

Regev said it was possible that Cabinet ministers would take a decision on a cease-fire as early as this weekend. But he said Israel was first waiting to receive reports from envoys that traveled yesterday to Cairo and Washington to discuss the terms of a truce.

Chief Israeli negotiator Amos Gilad was in Egypt on his second trip in two days to discuss an Egyptian truce proposal. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni traveled to the United States in an effort to hammer out a deal with Washington on blocking arms smuggling.

Earlier yesterday during a visit to the West Bank, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on Israel to take unilateral action.

"I strongly urge Israeli leadership and government to declare a cease-fire unilaterally," Ban said from Ramallah, the seat of the West Bank government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a fierce rival of Hamas. "It's time to think about a unilateral cease-fire from the Israeli government."

But Regev dismissed that idea. "I don't believe that there's a logical expectation in the international community that Israel unilaterally cease fire while Hamas would continue to target cities, trying to kill our people," he said.

More than 1,100 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, including 346 children, according to the UN and Gaza health officials. The death toll rose by three dozen yesterday, including 25 people whose bodies were unearthed from rubble, Gaza health officials said.

Thirteen Israelis have been killed, four by rocket fire, according to the military.

The Israeli military kept up pressure on Hamas yesterday.

Before dawn, Israeli aircraft struck about 40 targets all over Gaza, the military said. An official statement said targets included smuggling tunnels along the Egyptian border, a rocket launcher ready for firing and a mosque that housed a tunnel entrance and was used to store arms.

Later, Palestinian medical officials reported an 11-year-old girl was killed during shelling in northern Gaza and witnesses reported an air strike on a Gaza City mosque as people were headed there for Friday prayers.

Militants yesterday sent rockets flying at Israel more than 10 times, injuring three people, including one critically, officials said.


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