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Israel Cabinet to vote on Gaza cease-fire

ISRAELI aircraft pounded 50 Hamas positions early today, maintaining pressure on the Islamic militant group as the country's top leaders prepared for a crucial vote on whether to end Israel's punishing three-week-long campaign against Gaza's rulers.

The vote on the Egyptian-brokered truce proposal follows a signing of a "memorandum of understanding" in Washington between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that calls for expanded intelligence cooperation between their two countries to prevent Hamas from rearming.

Livni called the deal, reached on the final working day of the Bush administration, "a vital complement for a cessation of hostility." It paved the path for today night's vote in the 12-member Security Cabinet.

Israel was expected to approve the Egyptian proposal, under which fighting would stop immediately for 10 days. Israeli forces would remain in Gaza and the border crossings into the territory would remain closed until security arrangements were made to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into the territory.

Under the deal, Egypt would shut down weapons smuggling routes with international help, and discussions on opening Gaza's blockaded border crossings - Hamas' key demand - would take place at a later date.

Israel launched its military offensive on December 27 to try to halt near-daily Hamas rocket attacks against southern Israel. Palestinian medics say the fighting has killed at least 1,140 Palestinians - roughly half of them civilians - and Israel's bombing campaign caused massive destruction in the Gaza Strip. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, four by rocket fire and nine in ground battles in Gaza.

Israel Radio reported that a truce summit could be held in Cairo as early as Sunday with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Israeli leaders in attendance.

In the meantime, battles raged on in Gaza on Saturday. Palestinian officials reported heavy clashes with Israeli troops. In Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian health official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said an Israeli tank shell killed a woman and a boy and wounded 25 others when it landed near a UN school.

Near Gaza City, Palestinian officials said three more civilians were killed by a naval shell. The UN 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.

The violence followed Israeli envoy Amos Gilad's journey to Cairo on Friday. He returned to report "substantial progress" in truce talks with Egyptian mediators, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office announced.

"I hope we are entering the endgame and that our goal of sustained and durable quiet in the south is about to be attained," Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said.

The Israeli vote comes ahead of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration on Tuesday, and Israeli elections next month.

Hamas' political chief Khaled Mashaal 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," Osama Hamdan, a top Hamas figure, told Sky News.

Hamas, which overtook the Gaza Strip in a violent coup in June 2007, has demanded an immediate Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the opening of blockaded border crossings.

In an interview with the Israeli YNet news Web site, Livni indicated that Israel would renew its offensive if Hamas militants continued to fire rockets at Israel even after a truce agreement was reached.

"This campaign is not a one-time event. We will need to have our hand on the pulse," she said. "The test will be the day after. That is the test of deterrence."

In Washington, Rice and Livni signed an agreement intended to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into Gaza if a cease-fire is implemented. Livni said it was meant "to complement Egyptian actions and to end of the flow of weapons to Gaza."

The agreement outlines a framework under which the United States commits detection and surveillance equipment, as well as logistical help and training to Israel, Egypt and other nations to be used in monitoring Gaza's land and sea borders.

Earlier, Rice said she hoped European countries would work out similar bilateral agreements with Israel.

"There are a number of conditions that need to be obtained if a cease-fire is to be durable," Rice said. "Among them is to do something about the weapons smuggling and the potential for resupply of Hamas from other places, including from Iran."

Rice and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Obama and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton had been consulted on the details of the document, which was concluded after frenetic negotiations to address Israeli concerns that Hamas would use a cease-fire to rearm.

In Gaza, residents said they would welcome an end to the fighting, but expressed skepticism a cease-fire can hold.

"Everybody wants the world to return to what it was. But I think it's empty words," said Ghadir Mohammed, who was forced to flee her Gaza City home because of the fighting. "Let's assume if Hamas fires a rocket, will they be quiet about it? Israel isn't the kind to be quiet."

A resident of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, which has been targeted by Hamas rockets, said the army needed to be sure there would be quiet in southern Israel before stopping the fight.

"For eight years, they have been shooting at us," said Yigal Hakmon, manager of a convenience store. "We can't stop in the middle. We have to finish. We have to kill all the Hamas people."


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