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Israel Cease-Fire to Be Agreed Within Hours, Mursi Says

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
“I prefer a diplomatic solution,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before meeting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Jerusalem. Photographer: Kobi Gideon/GPO via Getty Images

Talks to end fighting between Israel and Palestinian groups extended today as the Israeli army renewed its bombardment of Gaza and militants fired more rockets at the Jewish state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived shortly before midnight local time, that he would “prefer” a diplomatic solution that stops Hamas’s rocket attacks against Israel. “But if not, I’m sure you’ll understand Israel will have to take whatever action is necessary to defend its people,” he said as the two spoke to reporters.

The Israeli military said in posts on Twitter that it hit more than 30 targets in Gaza after about 8 p.m. local time, including strikes targeting two militants. The U.S., the European Union and Israel consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization.

At least 33 Palestinians were killed today, bringing the death toll in the weeklong conflict to 135, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry of Gaza. Naval forces shelled Gaza’s western coast, demolishing buildings described as Hamas offices and weapons-making facilities.

Israel’s Defense Ministry said a civilian employee was killed by a rocket fired at an army base in the south, the fifth Israeli to die from the violence.

The latest clashes came amid cease-fire talks in which leaders including Clinton and Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi were involved. Clinton planned to fly to Cairo tomorrow to meet with Mursi.

Clinton Comments

Clinton, speaking alongside Netanyahu before heading into their talks, said it is “essential to de-escalate the situation in Gaza” as diplomats seek a “durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security and legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Neither Clinton nor Netanyahu commented directly on whether a cease-fire was near. Earlier, Mursi said an accord would be reached within hours, and Hamas scheduled a press conference at 9 p.m. local time to announce it. That hour passed, and CNN reported that no such declaration was likely today, citing an Egyptian official it didn’t name.

Israel has postponed a decision on launching a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip, giving international negotiators a chance to craft a cease-fire, said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. If talks fail, Israel is prepared to invade, he said. Israel says any truce must guarantee the end of rocket attacks, while Hamas is demanding an end to the blockade of Gaza and the permanent opening of its border with Egypt.

Oil Declines

The Israeli military has carried out more than 1,400 air-strikes on Gaza, while Hamas and other Palestinian militias have fired more than 1,200 rockets since the Nov. 14 killing of Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari.

Oil declined on expectations of a cease-fire. Crude for January delivery dropped 2.3 percent to $86.94 a barrel at 3 p.m. in New York.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem today, said rocket attacks on civilians were unacceptable, and urged restraint by Israel. He said nobody would benefit if the conflict escalated.

Osama Hamdan, the Hamas official in charge of international relations, said in a phone interview earlier that a cease-fire agreement to take effect at midnight was almost ready.

Palestinian Rockets

Palestinians fired at least 147 rockets into Israel today, the army said. One Israeli was seriously injured by a missile in the southern city of Ashkelon, while police said a rocket fired from Gaza reached the Jerusalem area, the second since the beginning of hostilities. Channel 2 said it fell in open countryside.

The Gaza operation is the first major military initiative taken by Netanyahu in the seven years he has served as prime minister, including his first term from 1996 to 1999. A poll published by the Haaretz daily yesterday showed that 84 percent of Israelis approve of the operation, and Netanyahu is favored to win re-election in elections set for Jan. 22.

“It’s ironic given Netanyahu’s hawkish reputation that when he’s finally taken military action, it’s been fairly restrained and precise,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “It also answers some of the criticism about his indecisiveness, which has come from both sides of the political spectrum.”

Israel has massed armor on its border east of Gaza and is calling up 75,000 reservists for a possible ground operation. An incursion would be the first since December 2008, when fighting left more than 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

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