An Israeli army mobile artillery piece fires towards targets in the Gaza Strip, from the Israel side of the border with Gaza. Israel said Friday it hoped it was close to winding up the punishing offensive it launched three weeks ago in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and that it might make a decision as early as this weekend.
Israeli forces pounded dozens of Hamas targets early Saturday as the army kept up pressure on the Islamic militant group ahead of a crucial vote on whether to end Israel's punishing three-week-long campaign against Gaza's rulers.
The military said it struck some 50 Hamas targets. In one attack, a shell struck a United Nations school packed with refugees fleeing the fighting, witnesses and the U.N. said, killing two Palestinians and drawing a sharp condemnation from the U.N.
Israel had no comment on the incident, the latest in a string of attacks to hit a U.N. installation.
Israel was pressing ahead with its offensive hours before a vote by its leaders late Saturday on whether to accept an Egyptian-brokered truce.
The vote followed Friday's 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 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."
Israel's 12-member Security Cabinet was expected to approve the Egyptian proposal, under which fighting would stop immediately for 10 days. Israeli forces would remain in Gaza and the territory's border crossings with Israel and Egypt would remain closed until security arrangements are made to prevent Hamas arms smuggling.
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.
It remained unclear whether Hamas supports the proposal, sending mixed signals about whether it would accept the cease-fire proposal. In Turkey, a spokesman for the movement, Sami Abu Zuhri, said Saturday that militants would keep fighting.
Hamas "will not bow to invading forces, will not raise the white flag," he said.
But after weeks of heavy losses, leaders inside Gaza have signaled they are ready for a deal. A Hamas delegation was headed to Cairo on Saturday for more negotiations.
"Our movement is a main player and it cannot be ignored," said Ghazi Hamad, a Gaza-based Hamas official.
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.
Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 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, according to the government.
Israel Radio reported that a truce summit could be held in Cairo as early as Sunday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Israeli leaders in attendance.
In the meantime, there was no slowdown in the offensive. A total of 11 Palestinians were killed in battles throughout Gaza on Saturday, Palestinian medics said.
Israeli warplanes dropped bombs throughout the night on suspected smuggling tunnels in the southern border town of Rafah. The bombs could be heard whistling through the air, shook the ground upon impact and left a dusty haze in the air.
In the northern town of Beit Lahiya, an Israeli shell struck a U.N. school where 1,600 people had sought shelter to flee the fighting, said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.
He said several shells struck the school compound, including a direct hit on the top floor of the building. The shell killed two boys, and turned a room on the building's into a blackened mess of charred concrete and twisted metal bed frames. Near Gaza City, Palestinian officials said three more civilians were killed by a naval shell, and a militant was killed in an airstrike.
Gunness condemned the school attack, saying the U.N. has given Israel the coordinates of all its operations in Gaza to avoid such violence. "There have to be investigations to see if war crimes have been committed," he said.
The Israeli military had no immediate comment, saying the matter was still under investigation. But in similar instances, including an attack that heavily damaged the U.N. headquarters in Gaza earlier this week, Israel has accused Hamas militants of staging attacks from U.N. and other civilian buildings.
The military said its planes struck 50 Hamas locations overnight, including rocket-launching sites, smuggling tunnels, weapons storehouses, bunkers and minefields. Some five rockets were fired into Israel, causing minor damage but no injuries, the army said.
Israeli troops entered a small central Gaza town and nearby housing project, taking over houses and positioning on rooftops. Hamas militants fired assault rifles, mortars and rockets at the Israeli forces in tanks and military vehicles, the sound of clashes audible from Gaza City. Warplanes fired missiles at buildings and nearby farms, witnesses said.
"A shell landed in my bedroom and we are now sitting in the kitchen. We are 17 people here," said Jihan Sarsawi, a resident of the housing project. Speaking by telephone, she said residents were trapped in their homes.
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. The Israeli vote comes ahead of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration on Tuesday, and Israeli elections next month.
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," she said. "The test will be the day after. That is the test of deterrence."
Speaking in Washington, she said the deal with the U.S. 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.