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John Kerry shapes plan for truce in Gaza Strip

Unclear if sides would agree to cease-fire, talks

Palestinian medics carried children wounded in the strike on a compound housing a UN school in Gaza on Thursday.

Majed Hamdan/Associated Press

Palestinian medics carried children wounded in the strike on a compound housing a UN school in Gaza on Thursday.

CAIRO — Secretary of State John Kerry has proposed a two-stage plan to halt the fighting in the Gaza Strip that would first impose a weeklong truce starting Sunday, an official involved in the negotiations said Friday.

As soon as the truce took effect, Palestinian and Israeli officials would begin negotiations on the principal economic, political, and security concerns about Gaza, with other nations attending.

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The proposal emerged a day after a series of explosions at a school run by the United Nations, which was sheltering hundreds of Palestinians who had fled Israeli military assaults, killed at least 16 people and wounded many more.

Important details of the plan remained under negotiation early Friday, said the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity as the negotiations were at a delicate stage. Among the unresolved issues is an Israeli proposal that its troops be allowed to remain in Gaza during the truce.

It was not clear if the final plan would be endorsed by Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, or by the Israeli Cabinet.

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Hamas’s political leader, Khaled Meshal, has stated that he would not accept an enduring cease-fire until his demands were met, including the lifting of an economic blockade on Gaza.

But Meshal called Wednesday for a humanitarian truce to allow relief aid to reach Gaza, and the proposed start of the seven-day truce is designed to coincide with the Muslim feast of the Eid al-Fitr, which signals the end of Ramadan.

The Israeli Cabinet was expected to discuss the plan Friday afternoon, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported.

Seventeen days of fighting have left more than 750 Palestinians dead from Israeli attacks, most of them civilians. On the Israeli side, 32 soldiers and three civilians have been killed.

The escalating toll, punctuated by the strike on the UN school in Beit Hanoun on Thursday, added pressure to reach a truce. So did Kerry’s travel schedule.

“He isn’t here for an indefinite amount of time and in the near future he will determine whether there is a willingness to come to an agreement on a cease-fire,” a senior State Department official told reporters Thursday evening.

The Israeli media has reported that Kerry planned to leave Cairo for the United States on Friday afternoon.

In his push for an agreement, Kerry has been involved in round-the-clock calls with officials in the region, and the proposal he is pursuing reflects his sense of a process that might be acceptable to both sides.

Kerry spoke by telephone Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, a conversation that took place before he was aware of the attack on the school in Gaza.

Kerry also spoke with his counterparts from Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, and Norway. His conversations with the Qatari and Turkish foreign ministers were especially important since they have supported Hamas, have some influence with the militant group, and appeared to be functioning as intermediaries.

On Thursday evening, Kerry met here with Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, to coordinate strategy.

“I was shocked and appalled by what has happened in Beit Hanoun,” Ban said at the start of the meeting.

Asked how close he thought he was to an agreement, Kerry replied: “I am going to have a lot to say tomorrow, probably, so I am going to wait until then.”

“I certainly have some work to do tonight,” he added. “The tragic incident today, and every day, just underscores the work we are trying to do and what we are trying to achieve. So we are going to keep at it and we need to actually sit down and get to work.”

Many Palestinians initially presumed an Israeli strike had hit the shelter at the UN school, but the Israeli military suggested soon afterward that errant Palestinian-fired munitions might have been the source. The local director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which runs the school, said he could not be sure.

It was the third time that shelters set up in schools have been struck during the current conflict. The UN a gency, which is helping Palestinians displaced by the conflict, said more than 140,000 residents of Gaza were now staying in 83 schools where it runs shelters.

Israeli officials denied having intentionally targeted the school and said they had warned the United Nations three days earlier that the school should be evacuated because the surrounding area was a combat zone.

The civilians who had taken refuge in the school had been gathering in the courtyard preparing to flee just when it was hit multiple times, witnesses said.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza said at least 16 people had been killed and “a large number” wounded at the Beit Hanoun school.

A senior Israeli military official, Brigadier General Michael Edelstein, the commander of the Gaza division, told reporters in a telephone briefing that he did not yet know what had happened. “If we made a mistake, we will say it,” he said.

He said Israel was not acting intentionally against any United Nations infrastructure in Gaza. “We would never bomb such a place,” he said.

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