World

Hamas delivers ceasefire demands to Egyptian negotiators

Hamas envoys in Cairo said Wednesday that Egyptian negotiators have been fully briefed on their ceasefire demands, a day before an Israeli envoy is set to arrive in the city.

Gaza death toll tops 1,000, say Palestinians

A Palestinian stands next to a crater caused by Israeli bombing of the Sheik Radwan cemetery in Gaza City Wednesday. ((Hatem Moussa/Associated Press))

Hamas envoys in Cairo said Wednesday that Egyptian negotiators have been fully briefed on their ceasefire demands, a day before an Israeli envoy is set to arrive in the city.

"The movement has presented a detailed vision to the Egyptian leadership so that it [Egypt] can continue its pursuit to end the aggression and lift the injustice on our people in the Gaza Strip," Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil said during a news conference Wednesday.

"The Egyptian leadership will … discuss [the views] with the aggressor to reach the goals that we want. During this period we will monitor."

Al-Bardawil didn't provide any further details on the group's demands, but it has called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the reopening of border crossings.

Lead Israeli negotiator Amos Gilad is expected to arrive in Cairo Thursday.

A spokesperson for Egypt's foreign ministry told the BBC that progress is being made.

"We're working with Hamas and we're working with the Israeli side. We hope to reach an outcome soon," said Hossam Zaki.

Rockets from Lebanon

As diplomatic efforts continued Wednesday, the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in Gaza said that the death toll in Gaza topped 1,000.

Thirteen Israelis have been killed since the Israeli campaign started on Dec. 27 in an effort to stop Hamas from firing rockets into the Jewish state.

Officials in both Israel and Lebanon said several rockets were launched at northern Israel Wednesday, although no injuries or damage have been reported. At least one of the rockets fell short inside Lebanon, according to security officials there. It's the second such cross-border attack since the conflict started.

Israeli forces responded to the attack by firing several rounds of artillery fire into southern Lebanon.

The rocket attack came as Israeli ground forces pushed closer toward the Gaza Strip's main city early Wednesday, with more than 60 air strikes reported overnight in the Palestinian territory.  

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has arrived in the region for talks with key leaders, called for intensified negotiations in order to quickly reach a ceasefire.

"It is intolerable that civilians bear the brunt of this conflict," Ban said from Cairo, where he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

2nd attack launched from Lebanon in a week

It was not immediately clear Wednesday who was behind the rocket attacks from Lebanon, which reportedly landed in the Israeli city of Kiryat Shemona.

A similar attack took place last Thursday when four rockets were fired into northern Israel, marking the first time the Jewish state had come under fire from its northern neighbour since the offensive began on Dec. 27. Two people were wounded in that attack.

Israeli soldiers observe south Lebanon, not seen, as they stand in a watch post in northern Israel Wednesday. ((Yaron Kaminsky/Associated Press))

While rocket launches from Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon were a hallmark of the 34-day conflict in 2006 between Israel and the militant political group, both Israeli and Lebanese officials have said they don't believe last week's attack was launched by Hezbollah. 

Some have suggested the attack was likely carried out by a small Palestinian group operating out of Lebanon.

Israel, which has repeatedly said it is preparing for an attack in the north, has mobilized thousands of reserve troops. Israeli helicopter gunships flew reconnaissance missions along the heavily protected border Wednesday as Lebanese troops and UN peacekeepers sent out patrols, Lebanese officials said on condition of anonymity. 

Israeli police said residents have been advised to hide in bomb shelters, while some living in southern Lebanon took their children out of school Wednesday for fear of an escalation in the violence.

With Israel's military offensive in Gaza against Palestinian militant group Hamas entering its 19th day, witnesses said an Israeli warplane fired a missile at the former city hall in densely populated Gaza City.

The building, which has been used as a courthouse in recent years, was destroyed, and many stores in the market around it were badly damaged, the witnesses said.

Aircraft also struck the Sheikh Radwan cemetery in Gaza City, destroying about 30 graves and scattering body parts for metres, residents said. The military had no immediate comment, but rocket squads have used graveyards as launching pads in the past.

"There was flesh on the roofs, there was small bits of intestines. My neighbour found a hand of a woman who died a long time ago, we put it all into a plastic bag," said resident Ahmad Abu Jarbou.

Children make up the majority of Gaza's population and are suffering in a "conflict which is not theirs," said Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, in Johannesburg.

Bin Laden urges jihad in taped message

A new audiotape purportedly recorded by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is urging Muslims to launch a jihad, or holy war, against the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Al-Qaeda chief bin Laden has urged Palestinian militants to continue their battle against Israeli forces and "enlist the youth into jihad brigades.

"Muslim nation, you are capable of defeating the Zionist entity with your popular capabilities and your great hidden strength — without the support of [Arab] leaders and despite the fact that most of [the leaders] stand in the barracks of the Crusader-Zionist alliance," bin Laden said, according to the tape posted Wednesday on Islamic militant websites where the organization is known for issuing messages.

He also condemned Arab governments for preventing their people from acting to "liberate Palestine."

The authenticity of the tape could not immediately be independently confirmed.

The Arab League said Wednesday it had failed to win enough support among its members to convene an emergency meeting on Gaza.

However, Saudi Arabia will host a separate emergency meeting of Gulf Arab states on Thursday.

On Wednesday night, Venezuela announced it had broken off diplomatic relations with Israel in protest over the Gaza offensive. It follows last week's expulsion of Israel's ambassador to Venezuela by the government of President Hugo Chavez, a vocal critic of Israel.

UN chief arrives

News of bin Laden's message, his first since last May, came as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo, where international emissaries have been working to find a diplomatic solution to the violence between Israel and Hamas.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, meets with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the presidential palace in Cairo Wednesday. ((Amr Nabil/Associated Press))

Ban met with Mubarak before expected visits to Israel, the West Bank, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait. His tour will not include any meetings with representatives from Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since June 2007.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution last week calling for an immediate end to Hamas rocket attacks and Israeli military action in Gaza.

Israel says its military offensive is aimed at bringing an end to Hamas rockets fired from Gaza into the Jewish state's southern towns, and it accuses the militant group of using civilians in Gaza as human shields and exploiting civilian casualties for political purposes.

Meanwhile, Israeli media reported a rift in the country's three-member senior security team over whether to continue the offensive.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is ignoring calls from Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for an immediate ceasefire.

Barak is promoting a week-long "humanitarian" ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, while Olmert believes the military operation still has not achieved its goals, the paper said, quoting unnamed senior sources.

With files from the Associated Press