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Israeli government prepares to OK unilateral truce in Gaza

JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders are preparing to vote Saturday on what amounts to a unilateral truce ending three weeks of devastating fighting in the Hamas-led Gaza Strip.

"It looks like the parameters of a deal are coming together," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "It looks like we are going to get a sustainable cease-fire."

The stability of the Egyptian-brokered accord is uncertain, however, because Hamas leaders have publicly rejected Israeli demands for a long-term cease-fire.

More than 1,100 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began bombing the narrow coastal strip Dec. 27. Nine Israeli soldiers have died. Four Israelis have been killed by Hamas rocket strikes into Israel, three civilians and a soldier.

Before Israel announced the vote by its security Cabinet, Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal delivered a defiant speech in which he rejected Israel's demands.

"We will not accept Israel's conditions for a cease-fire," Mashaal told a special Gaza summit of Arab and Muslim leaders in Qatar. Hamas has vowed to keep firing on Israel until it opens its border crossings with Gaza to allow a normal flow of supplies.

However, there have been signs of discord between hard-line exiled Hamas leaders such as Mashaal, who has his base in Damascus, Syria, and more pragmatic Hamas politicians who are facing the full force of the Israeli military in Gaza. Hamas negotiators in Cairo may be more willing to find a way to end the fighting.

It's possible that Israel will vote to halt its military offensive in Gaza without receiving explicit assurances from Hamas that it will end its persistent rocket attacks on southern Israel. If Palestinian militants hold their fire, Israel would be expected to begin pulling its forces out of Gaza sometime next week.

Should Hamas decide to keep launching rockets, Israeli leaders warned, the Gaza militants would face even harsher blows.

"If Hamas shoots, we will have to respond, and if it shoots after a period of time, we will have to mount another campaign," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel's Channel 10. "I have said the end doesn't have to be in agreement with Hamas but rather in arrangements against Hamas."

In another step toward a cease-fire, the outgoing Bush administration and Israel signed an agreement in Washington on Friday that commits the United States to leading an expanded effort to halt arms smuggling to Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza.

Livni, who flew to Washington to sign the accord with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said that preventing Hamas from rearming must be a keystone to any cease-fire.

The U.S.-Israeli memorandum of understanding commits the United States to sharing more intelligence with Israel and other countries nearby and to accelerating the training and equipping of security forces such as Egypt's for an anti-smuggling mission.

One goal of the effort is to stop weapons before they arrive at Egypt's border with Gaza, where they're smuggled into Gaza via a network of tunnels. Most of the arms are thought to come overland via Egypt's Sinai peninsula or by sea from the Mediterranean. The new effort is likely to involve attempts at naval interdiction.

The United States and Israel also have discussed having the Army Corps of Engineers build some kind of barrier — such as trenches or a submerged wall — to prevent the digging of underground tunnels for smuggling weapons from Egypt into Gaza, said diplomats who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Rice said Israel was pursuing similar agreements with Great Britain, France and other European powers.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice had kept the incoming Obama administration apprised of the deal. She spoke with President-elect Barack Obama, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton and Obama's incoming national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, McCormack said.

"It's safe to assume that we wouldn't have moved forward if we hadn't done some careful consultations prior to signing this with the incoming folks," he said.

Ensuring that Hamas is unable to rearm by using the tunnels has been a key Israeli demand for ending the fighting.

More than 90,000 Palestinians have been forced from their homes. More than 5,000 people have been wounded. Israeli strikes have destroyed much of the Gaza Strip government infrastructure.

On Friday, Israeli forces pulled back after a chaotic strike on Gaza City neighborhoods.

In an attack Thursday that Hamas leaders saw as an attempt to compel it to accept the Egyptian plan, Israeli shells hit the main United Nations compound and set its central humanitarian-aid warehouse ablaze.

An Israeli strike also hit a Red Crescent hospital, forcing doctors to organize a hasty evacuation of more than 500 people. Another shell hit a high-rise apartment that houses international media offices, including Reuters.

Israel dramatically scaled back its military operations Friday, giving residents time to regroup and check on their homes.

Gaza medical officials said they'd recovered 25 bodies from the rubble left behind by the latest Israeli strikes.

(McClatchy special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.)

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