GAZA, (Reuters) – Israel plans to halt its Gaza offensive without any deal with Hamas, an Israeli official said on Saturday, in an apparent effort to deny the Islamist group any gains from the three-week-old conflict.
Hamas leaders in exile have vowed to fight on, but many of the 1.5 million Palestinians enduring incessant bombardment and privation in Gaza seemed desperate for their ordeal to end.
“The goal is to announce, subject to cabinet approval, a suspension of military activities because we believe our goals have been attained,” said the official, asking not to be named.
The security cabinet met shortly before 8 p.m. (1800 GMT). Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was to address the nation afterwards. Reporting on the start of the meeting, Israel’s Channel 10 television said the military commander had recommended concluding the campaign.
Israel launched air strikes on the Gaza Strip on Dec. 27 and ground troops pushed into the coastal enclave a week later.
Without an accord with Hamas, diplomats said they feared Israel would let only a trickle of goods into Gaza, hampering reconstruction and creating more hardship for its people. “There is no agreement with Hamas,” the Israeli official said, adding that Israel would reserve the right to act if Hamas continued firing or launched rockets across the border.
A Hamas official in Beirut said earlier the militants would keep fighting until Israel met their demands, mainly for an end to a crippling economic blockade.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak urged Israel to end its Gaza operation immediately and said he planned to host a reconstruction conference, but did not say when.
Egyptian state news agency MENA said Olmert had called Mubarak to give “Israel’s positive response” to ceasefire calls.
Mubarak also invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and French president Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss Gaza in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he might attend. Western diplomats said the British, German, Spanish and Turkish leaders could all also join the talks.
As Israeli forces kept up attacks on Gaza, tank fire killed two boys at a United Nations school, a U.N. official said. “These two little boys are as innocent, indisputably, as they are dead,” John Ging, head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza, told Reuters after the school was hit.
The Israeli army was checking the report. A spokesman said troops do not target civilians but respond when fired on.
In addition to declaring a unilateral ceasefire, Israeli officials said they expected Israel and Egypt to reach an agreement on increased security along the Gaza-Egyptian border.
Under its terms, they said, the Rafah border crossing would only reopen in line with a 2005 agreement with the Palestinian Authority, which calls for Abbas’s forces to be in control and for Europeans to monitor traffic.
Israel and the United States signed a pact on Friday aimed at stopping the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Britain, France and Germany have offered to send warships to help in the effort.
Hamas drove Abbas’s forces from Gaza in June 2007, 18 months after defeating his secular Fatah faction in a Palestinian election. It no longer recognises him as president.
Hamas negotiators were due to meet Egyptian officials to discuss Israel’s response to truce terms they have offered. “Either we hear what we have demanded or the result will be the continuation of confrontation on the ground,” Osama Hamdan, Hamas’s representative in Lebanon, declared in Beirut.
Hamas has offered a one-year, renewable truce on condition that all Israeli forces leave Gaza within a week and that all the border crossings with Israel and Egypt are opened.
Israel appears keen to halt Gaza hostilities before Barack Obama is sworn in as U.S. president on Tuesday, to avoid clouding a historic day for its main ally. Israelis mostly back the war, but much of the world wants the bloodshed to stop.
At least 1,206 Palestinians have been killed, including 410 children, and 5,300 wounded, Hamas health officials said.
Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians, hit by rockets fired from Gaza, have been killed during the offensive.
Four soldiers were seriously wounded on Saturday, possibly by “friendly fire”, an Israeli military spokesman said.
Ging, the UNRWA chief, said Israeli tank fire killed the two brothers, aged 5 and 7, in a U.N. school in the northern town of Beit Lahiya where they had sought sanctuary. Their mother, who was among 14 wounded, had her legs blown off. “The question now being asked is: Is this and the killing of all other innocent civilians in Gaza a war crime?” Ging said.
Secretary General Ban called it an “outrageous attack”.
About 45,000 Gazans fleeing battle zones are sheltering in U.N.-run schools in the enclave. On Jan. 6 Israeli shelling killed 42 people who had taken refuge at a U.N. school. An UNRWA compound was hit twice on Thursday and three staff were wounded.
Hamas rocket fire has dwindled but not ceased. Seven rockets hit Israel on Saturday, causing no casualties, the army said.