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Israel pounds Hamas, diplomacy revs up

GAZA CITY, Jan 7 – Israel pounded Hamas fighters with artillery shells and air missiles in Gaza on Wednesday as diplomatic efforts sped up to end the war on the Islamists that has killed at least 666 Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was mulling an invitation from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to visit Cairo on Wednesday for urgent talks on the 12-day-old assault on Hamas that has sparked protests worldwide.

Olmert’s spokesman told AFP the premier had not yet decided whether he would travel to Egypt to discuss security on the Egypt-Gaza border — an issue that Israel has repeatedly said would be key to ending its offensive.

"We will be putting out a statement shortly," he said.

Israel’s security cabinet was due to meet later on Wednesday when "the ministers will discuss military and diplomatic questions linked to the operation," the spokesman said.

Egypt "invites the Israelis and Palestinians for an urgent meeting to reach arrangements and guarantees that would not allow the repeat of the current escalation," Mubarak said late on Tuesday after talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Such guarantees would include "securing the borders and… opening of the border crossings and lifting the siege," said the veteran Middle East mediator who had brokered a six-month truce between Israel and Hamas last year.

Sarkozy said Israel was invited "to come and discuss the matter of border security" and that "I have very precise elements that allow me to say that an Israeli delegation will meet an Egyptian delegation to discuss the matter of security."

Israel’s main ally the United States has backed efforts by Mubarak to secure a halt to one of Israel’s deadliest-ever offensives in Gaza, a Palestinian enclave run by the Islamist Hamas movement for a year and a half.

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"We are pleased by and wish to commend the statement of president — the president of Egypt and to follow up on that initiative," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told an emergency UN Security Council session in New York on Tuesday, according to a State Department transcript.

On the ground in Gaza, the Israeli military attacks on Hamas targets entered their 12th day, with some 30 air strikes overnight targeting rocket launching sites and groups of gunmen across the territory, an army spokesman said.

"Navy and artillery also fired at targets and at groups of gunmen, mostly in the north," he said.

Dozens of Israeli tanks and bulldozers rolled out of the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis after operating there for around 24 hours, witnesses said.

An air strike killed a Palestinian gunman and wounded three in Gaza City’s Zeitun neighbourhood, where some of the heaviest fighting has occurred since Israeli troops invaded the crowded coastal strip on Saturday, medics said.

Since Israel unleashed its Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza on December 27, at least 666 Palestinians have been killed, including 215 children, and more than 2,950 wounded, according to Gaza medics.

Israeli strikes in Gaza on Tuesday hit near three UN-run schools that killed at least 48 people, prompting calls for an investigation from the UN and escalating calls for an immediate ceasefire.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he was "deeply dismayed" by the strikes on the schools and called them "totally unacceptable."

The army said that its investigation into the deadliest strike, on a school in Jabaliya found that militants had fired at Israeli forces from within the school and that Hamas "terror operatives" were among the dozens of people killed in the strike.

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Protests against Israel have spiralled worldwide amid the Gaza war.

Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Muslims to attack Israeli and Western targets in revenge for the offensive while Venezuela expelled Israel’s ambassador. In retaliation, Israel on Wednesday expelled Caracas’s top diplomat in the Jewish state.

There has been mounting international concern about the welfare of the 1.5 million people who live in the Gaza Strip, one of the world’s most densely populated territories where the vast majority of the population depends on foreign aid.

Israel has denied there is a humanitarian crisis, but Olmert’s office announced that the Jewish state would open a "humanitarian corridor" into the territory.

"This involves opening up geographical areas for limited periods of time during which the population will be able to receive the aid and stock up," his office said.


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