GAZA CITY, Jan 15 – Israeli tanks rumbled ever deeper into Gaza cities and jets pummelled the enclave from above on Thursday even as hopes rose for a truce to end the war on Hamas that has claimed more than 1,000 lives.
As battles raged on the ground in Gaza, a senior Israeli envoy was due to travel to Egypt amid a diplomatic push to end the 20-day-old war launched to stop rocket fire that has killed more than 400 civilians.
With United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon in the region to seek an end to the conflict, diplomats said Hamas has accepted an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, although the Islamists merely indicated support for its "broad outlines."
On the ground in Gaza, Israeli tanks barrelled into several neighbourhoods of Gaza’s main city and lunged deepest yet into Khan Yunis in the south after a night of intense bombings overnight across the territory, sending residents fleeing, witnesses said.
Columns of thick black smoke rose into the sky above several neighbourhoods in Gaza City and pitched battles were reported in the northern town of Jabaliya.
"I brought the children to the hospital because they were scared at home, but here they are even more terrified," 40-year-old Hossein said as he huddled with his wife and five children at a hospital in Gaza City where they took shelter shortly after dawn.
"We can’t take this any longer. Look at my children, they’re trembling," he said as explosions ripped through the air like thunderclaps and Israeli troops and Hamas fighters clashes less than 300 metres (yards) away.
Israeli warplanes pummelled the densely-populated territory with some 70 strikes overnight, targeting Palestinian fighters, rocket launching sites and weapon storage sites, the army said.
One raid targeted a mosque in the southern town of Rafah that was allegedly used to stockpile weapons, the army said.
Militants in Gaza fired 14 rockets and mortars into Israel in the space of several hours in the morning, it said.
Since Israel unleashed its Operation Cast Lead on December 27, at least 1,041 people have been killed and another 4,850 wounded, according to Gaza medics.
On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and three civilians have died as a result of combat or rocket fire.
In an article published Thursday in Britain’s Independent newspaper, Hamas prime minister in Gaza Ismail Haniya spelled out the Islamists’ conditions for a truce and appealed to the West to stop Israel’s offensive.
"Israel must end its criminal war and slaughter of our people, lift completely and unconditionally its illegal siege of the Gaza Strip, open all our border crossings and completely withdraw from Gaza," Haniya wrote.
"After this we would consider future options," said Haniya.
Although Egyptian and Spanish diplomats said on Wednesday that Hamas had accepted Egypt’s truce plan, a Gaza-based leader of the Islamist group said after talks with officials in Cairo that it did not reject its "broad outlines," without accepting the plan outright.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who arrived in Tel Aviv on Thursday morning, praised Egypt’s peace-brokering in a joint statement with French counterpart Bernard Kouchner.
"Important progress has been made over the past days in identifying workable solutions," they said.
A senior US State Department official told AFP that more work needed to be done before a truce could be reached in the fighting.
"It’s not a done deal yet. They’re still working it. There are a number of Hamas conditions that have to be dealt with," he said.
Israel has made stopping its deadliest offensive on Gaza conditional on a complete halt to rocket fire from the territory and a stem to arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.
A senior Israeli defence official told AFP on Wednesday that the war could continue as long as the January 20 inauguration of US president-elect Barack Obama.
Amid the diplomatic push on Thursday are emergency sessions of the UN General Assembly and Gulf Cooperation Council, and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s meetings with UN Secretary General Ban and Germany’s Steinmeier.
The offensive has sparked widespread concern about a humanitarian crisis in one of the world’s most densely populated places where the vast majority of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid.
As part of the fallout from the offensive, Venezuela and Bolivia have severed ties with the Jewish state.