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Egypt offers cease-fire plan for Mideast conflict

A bomb disposal expert cleared a house struck by a Hamas rocket in southern Israel.

Jack Guez/AFP

A bomb disposal expert cleared a house struck by a Hamas rocket in southern Israel.

JERUSALEM — Israel and its main militant Gaza adversary weighed an Egyptian cease-fire proposal late Monday, signaling a possible de-escalation of a week-old aerial battle that has left nearly 200 Palestinians dead from Israeli bombs and has sent hundreds of Gaza rockets deep into Israeli territory.

A senior government official in Israel, which has been preparing for the possibility of a ground invasion of Gaza, said it was seriously considering the Egyptian proposal. The initial reaction of Hamas, the dominant militant group in Gaza, was less committal, but was not an outright rejection.

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The proposal envisioned a cease-fire beginning at 9 a.m. Tuesday. It called for border crossings to Gaza to “be opened,” with the movement of people and goods to be “facilitated once the security situation becomes stable on the ground.” Within 48 hours of the initial cease-fire taking hold, talks are to be held in Cairo with the Israelis and the Palestinian militant factions on conditions for a longer-term truce, according to the text of the proposal.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ambassador Badr Abdelatty, said: “We hope it will be acknowledged. We are in close contact with everyone.”

Adding weight to the efforts, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was expected in Cairo as early as Tuesday, according to officials in the region and the Egyptian state news agency.

The senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomacy, said a meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security Cabinet had been called for early Tuesday morning to discuss the proposal and that it was “being considered very seriously.”

Hamas, which had said it was prepared to fire rockets indefinitely, appeared to want better terms. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official in Gaza, wrote on his Facebook page, “The responses of resistance will continue until the demands of our people are achieved. Any unilateral Israeli cessation has no value in the light of the large crimes and the disastrous humanitarian situation.” Osama Hamdan, a spokesman for the Islamic group, was more dismissive. He told CNN’s “The Situation Room” that Hamas did not receive the proposal directly from the Egyptians. That, he said, meant it was “an initiative for the media. It’s not a political initiative.”

One of Hamas’ demands has been the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, but the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the proposal refers only to crossings “between Israel and Gaza.”

Egypt is widely considered the natural regional mediator in such conflicts. But Egypt’s relations with Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, have turned bitter since the military ouster last year of Egypt’s elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, a leader in the Brotherhood. Under the new president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a former general who led the military takeover, Egypt has shut down most of the tunnels beneath its border with Gaza that were both an economic lifeline for the Palestinian coastal enclave as well as a major channel for weapons smuggling.

Tony Blair, the special envoy of the quartet of Middle East peacemakers, which included the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, welcomed the Egyptian proposal in a statement. He said: “The hope is that this cease-fire will allow us to put in place such a long-term strategy for the future in Gaza, and the West Bank. The international community will give its full backing to such an initiative.”

International entreaties for a cease-fire intensified in recent days amid growing alarm over the rising death toll in Gaza, but there was no letup in the hostilities on Monday. At least 14 Palestinians were killed on the seventh day of Israel’s air offensive aimed at quelling the rocket fire, bringing the total death toll in Gaza to about 180, many of them civilians.

Hamas has fired about 1,000 rockets at Israel over the last week, hitting new targets as far north as Hadera, about 60 miles from Gaza, and keeping millions of Israelis on alert and running for shelter at the wail of the sirens.

Israeli officials have said that Hamas was looking for some kind of an achievement, a “victory image,” before giving up the fight. That may have come on Monday when it flew an unmanned aircraft from Gaza into Israel, apparently for the first time.

The Israeli military intercepted the drone, blowing it apart in midair just offshore from the Israeli port city of Ashdod with a Patriot surface-to-air missile, the military said.

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