GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel's leader stood within Hamas rocket range Monday and warned Islamic militants that they face an "iron fist" unless they agree to Israeli terms for an end to war in the Gaza Strip. But the foes were in close contact with Egypt, a key mediator.
As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, Israeli tanks, gunboats and warplanes hammered suspected hiding places of Hamas operatives who control the poor, densely populated territory just across the border.
After nightfall, flares and explosions lit up the sky over Gaza and heavy gunfire was heard in parts of the coastal territory of 1.4 million people.
Defiant Hamas fighters battled Israeli troops on the periphery of Gaza City and launched 15 rockets at southern Israel. The group's prime minister insisted on an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the opening of blockaded border crossings as part of any truce.
"As we are in the middle of this crisis, we tell our people we, God willing, are closer to victory. All the blood that is being shed will not go to waste," Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader, said on Hamas' Al Aqsa television. But he said the group was also pursuing a diplomatic track to end the conflict that "will not close."
Haniyeh sat a desk in a room with a Palestinian flag and a Quran in the background. His location was unclear; Israeli airstrikes have targeted militant chiefs and most are in hiding.
Egypt said it was making slow progress in attempts to broker a truce, and special Mideast envoy Tony Blair said elements were in place for a cease-fire. The fighting erupted Dec. 27 and has killed more than 900 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, according to Palestinian medical officials. Thirteen Israelis, including 10 soldiers, have also been killed.
Olmert said Israel would only end military operations if Hamas stops rocketing Israel, as it has done for years, and is unable to re-arm after combat subsides.
"Anything else will be met with the Israeli people's iron fist," Olmert said. "We will continue to strike with full strength, with full force until there is quiet and rearmament stops."
A few hours before Olmert spoke, a rocket hit a house in Ashkelon but did not cause casualties. Olmert addressed regional mayors in the relative safety of the basement of a public building during his two-hour visit; he has toured other towns hit by rockets since the war began.
Later, he tempered his tough talk, saying: "I really hope that the efforts we are making with the Egyptians these days will ripen to a result that will enable us to end the fighting."
Ashkelon lies 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the border with Gaza. The Israeli military says Hamas has Iranian-supplied rockets that can reach 25 miles (40 kilometers) into southern Israel.
Inside Gaza, an Israeli battalion commander identified only as Lt. Col. Yehuda said troops had not encountered significant resistance and had found several houses booby-trapped either with regular explosives, or by sealing the windows and doors and opening cooking gas valves.
"A couple of days ago, an armed squad popped up from a tunnel that was concealed by a nearby building. We took them out with tank fire and a bulldozer," he said.
In another incident, the commander said, his men spotted a suicide bomber on a bicycle.
"He ran off to take cover in a building, presumably to draw us in," Yehuda said. "We demolished the building on top of him with a bulldozer."
Brig. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg said troops were "tightening the encirclement" of Gaza City and were "constantly on the move."
The comments by Yehuda and Eisenberg were approved by Israeli military censors. They spoke to a small group of reporters who accompanied Israeli units inside Gaza on Monday; Israeli forces have not allowed journalists to enter Gaza in order to cover the war independently.
Israeli warplanes pounded suspected Hamas positions in Gaza City Monday and navy gunboats fired at least 25 shells, setting fires and shaking offices. Smoke billowed over buildings.
At least 20 Palestinians died on Monday, some of them from wounds suffered on previous days, Gaza health officials said.
A girl, a doctor and a Hamas militant were killed in one incident in the northern Gaza Strip, said Basim Abu Wardeh, head of Kamal Adwan hospital in northern Gaza.
The doctor had rushed to evacuate the wounded from a building where two airstrikes had taken place, and was killed by a third strike, Abu Wardeh said. Four other medics were injured, one of them critically.
The Israeli military said four soldiers were injured, one of them seriously, in what an initial inquiry concluded was a so-called "friendly fire" incident in northern Gaza.
Israel has sent reserve units into Gaza to assist thousands of ground forces already in the territory, and fighting has persisted despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire. Egypt has assumed a traditional role as mediator between Israel and Hamas.
Talks "are progressing slowly but surely because each party wants to score some points," Hossam Zaki, the spokesman for Egypt's Foreign Ministry, told the British Broadcasting Corp. "We would like to be able to bridge some gaps and then proceed immediately to a cease-fire."
Zaki, however, said Egypt could not provide certain guarantees that Israelis seek, such as a halt to rocket fire.
"We'll enhance our efforts, but this is not an issue between Israel and Egypt," Zaki told the BBC. "It is an issue between Israel and Gaza, and this is something that will have to be worked out, as the (U.N.) Security Council says, in Gaza."
Much of the diplomacy focuses on an area of southern Gaza just across the Egyptian border known as the Philadelphi corridor that serves as a weapons smuggling route, making Egypt critical to both sides in any deal.
Israel wants those routes sealed and monitored as part of any peace deal, and has been bombing tunnels that run under that border.
"I think the elements of an agreement for the immediate cease-fire are there," Mideast envoy Blair said in Cairo. He added that, while more work needed to be done, he hoped to see a cease-fire "in the coming days."
Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad planned to travel to Egypt on Tuesday for talks.
With Israeli troops surrounding Gaza's main population centers, Israeli leaders have said the operation is close to achieving its goals. Security officials say they have killed hundreds of Hamas fighters, including top commanders, but there has been no way to confirm the claims.
The army says Hamas fighters were melting into residential areas, making it difficult to avoid civilian casualties.
Israel's chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, said Hamas militants were firing missiles from rooftops of civilian homes.
"There is a whole city built underground in Gaza. Lots of big weapons warehouses," Benayahu said. Soldiers also uncovered a tunnel dug inside Gaza that led 300 meters into Israel, he said.
International aid groups say Israel must do more to protect Palestinian civilians. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced and many basic food items are no longer available, the office of the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator said.
As many 88 percent of Gaza's residents now require food aid, up from 80 percent before the war, said Helene Gayle, president of the relief organization CARE USA.
The three-hour lull in fighting that Israel allows for humanitarian aid to move around Gaza is not sufficient, she said.