Israel Considers Cease-Fire

Diplomatic efforts were under way in Washington and Cairo Saturday to work out the details of a cease-fire proposal in Gaza.

Until Friday, the Egyptians had taken the lead in trying to bridge the gap between Israel and Hamas on how a cease-fire might be implemented and maintained.

Now it appears that Israel may declare a unilateral cease-fire, ignoring the demands of Hamas altogether.

Meanwhile, Israel's bombardment of Gaza continues.

Unilateral Cease-Fire Would Ignore Hamas Demands

At a meeting Friday with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah on the West Bank, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggested Israel should declare a unilateral cease-fire and stop the shelling. "We have no time to lose," he declared, saying that delay would result in further casualties and destruction.

Israeli leaders instantly dismissed Ban's suggestion. Yet soon after, Israeli spokesmen begin to hint that a unilateral cease-fire might just suit Israel's needs.

A unilateral cease-fire would mean that there would be no formal agreement between Israel and Hamas. Thus Hamas would not be legitimized as a negotiating partner in any way. Nor would Israel have to agree formally to Hamas' demands to open the border crossings and end the economic blockade of Gaza.

Hamas Divided

Internal divisions in Hamas have also made agreement on a cease-fire difficult. The group's top people in Gaza have been more flexible, but external leader Khaled Meshal has been immovable, insisting there would be no cease-fire before Israel withdraws its troops from Gaza and opens up the borders.

"This heinous aggression against the Gaza Strip is not against Hamas as the enemy portrays it, but against all of Gaza, all the Palestinian people, the Palestinian cause and the nation," Meshal announced at a meeting of Arab heads of state in Qatar Friday. "Israel has by now realized that it will not pay the agreed price to Palestinian negotiators or Arab negotiators. So it wanted to create a new game with no rules and impose conditions for a settlement."

It appears that whatever kind of a cease-fire is finally achieved, the U.S. will have some role in maintaining it. On Friday, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni signed an agreement with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington that spells out ways in which the U.S. will assist Israel in the technical and intelligence fields to assure that more weapons are not smuggled into Gaza once a cease-fire is in place.

"We've said repeatedly that the continued supply of armaments to Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza ... is a direct cause of the current hostilities," she said. "It is therefore incumbent upon us in the international community to prevent the rearmament of Hamas so that a cease-fire will be durable and fully respected."

On the ground in Gaza, overnight and into Saturday, Israeli forces appeared to maintain their current positions and continued aerial and artillery bombardment. Israeli shells hit near a U.N. school serving as shelter for civilians fleeing the combat zones. Two brothers were killed.

The current estimate of Palestinian casualties is 1,200 dead and 5,300 injured. The Israeli death toll stands at 13.