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Israeli officials estimate Gaza cease-fire close - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli aircraft launched at least two strikes on Palestinians Tuesday, killing a 13-year-old boy and an unidentified man, Palestinian doctors said. Despite the violence, Israeli defense officials estimated that an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire could take effect in the coming days.

Israel’s army confirmed two of the airstrikes. In the first, aircraft fired on the northeastern Gaza Strip at a group of Palestinians launching rockets, the army said.

Palestinian doctors said a boy, 13, was decapitated and another youth was seriously injured.

In the second strike, the aircraft fired at Palestinians who were planting explosives along the fence in central Gaza, the army said. Palestinian doctors said one man, 32, was killed. His identity was not immediately known.

In another apparent Israeli attack south of Gaza Strip, three people were wounded, Hamas said. The army did not immediately comment.

Israel frequently launches airstrikes and brief land raids in the Gaza Strip in an effort to stop rocket fire that has killed two Israelis in the past two weeks. During this period, the Israeli strikes have killed 14 Palestinians, including two civilians. Israel holds the Hamas militant group, which violently seized control of Gaza last June, responsible for all violence emanating from the area.

For months, Egypt has been trying to work out a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. After a trip to Egypt this week by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli defense officials said a truce could begin to take effect in the coming days. They spoke on condition on anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the talks.

The officials said Barak had cleared the way for the truce by easing a previous demand that the cease-fire be conditioned on the release of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza.

Instead, they said, Israel would agree to an initial truce in which both sides stop attacking each other. The fate of the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, along with Hamas’ demands that Israel ease an economic blockade of Gaza would be addressed later, the officials said. They believe this could lead to Hamas acceptance in the coming days.

Israel also has demanded that the second phase of the deal include an Egyptian agreement to halt all arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip.

Egypt’s powerful intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Omar Suleiman, was meeting with a high-level Hamas delegation in Cairo on Tuesday, including officials from the group’s headquarters in Syria.

Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said the group was seeking clarification on Israel’s position regarding the captured soldier. He suggested any demand that the soldier be released as part of a truce would derail the talks but did not say if the removal of this condition would clear the way for a deal.

Public pressure has been mounting in Israel for a broad military offensive in the Gaza Strip to stop the rocket attacks.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been reluctant to launch an operation due to the prospect that many Israelis and Palestinians would be killed. Such action would also likely derail U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank.