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Israel steps up air attacks amid new cease-fire bid

JERUSALEM — As Israel intensified its aerial assaults on Tuesday against symbols of Hamas rule in Gaza and other targets, new efforts were underway to forge a cease-fire, though they were mired in confusion and mixed signals after 22 days of fighting.

The renewed diplomatic push came after what Palestinians said was a devastating hit on the only electricity plant in the Gaza Strip, which set off a huge fire and threatened to create a major humanitarian crisis, with the Palestinian enclave lacking the means to operate the water and sewage systems and hospitals.

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After increasingly urgent international calls for a halt in the hostilities, the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, announced that Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the main Palestinian factions fighting in Gaza, were ready for an immediate 24-hour truce, and that a Palestinian delegation was planning to head to Cairo for broader cease-fire talks.

In a statement from the West Bank city of Ramallah, the leadership said that it had held intensive consultations with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and that a request by the United Nations to extend the truce to 72 hours was being considered favorably.

But Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, immediately responded in a text message that the announcement of a unilateral 24-hour truce was “incorrect and has nothing to do with the positions of the resistance.”

He added: “When we have an Israeli commitment with an international obligation of a humanitarian cease-fire, we will study it. But declaring a unilateral truce while the occupation kills our children, this will never happen.”

Later on Tuesday, Mohammed Deif, the commander of Hamas’s military wing who lives in hiding, said there would be no cease-fire until Israel stopped its attacks and the blockade on Gaza was lifted.

“We will not accept any middle-ground solutions at the expense of the resistance and our people’s freedom,” he said in a two-minute audio recording on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa television station, which resumed broadcasting a few hours after Israeli airstrikes on its headquarters in Gaza City early Tuesday.

The Israeli leadership did not publicly respond to Abbas’s initiative.

A military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, said Israeli forces were continuing operations in Gaza “to deal with the tunnels, to address the rockets, and to strike at Hamas’s infrastructure.” But he said he had “no confirmation” that the military had struck the power plant and said that in any case the plant “was not a target.”

Militants from Gaza fired rockets toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, and the Gaza Health Ministry reported that 13 people had been killed in Israeli shelling of Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip.

More than 1,200 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began its offensive on July 8, most of them civilians, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. On the Israeli side, 53 soldiers have been killed since the army sent ground forces in on July 17, and three civilians have been killed by rocket and mortar fire from Gaza.

A senior Palestinian official with knowledge of the latest cease-fire contacts said that internal Palestinian talks were continuing. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomacy, he said that Khaled Meshal, the exiled Hamas political leader who is based in Qatar, had agreed to a truce, but that there seemed to be disagreement or problems of coordination with some Hamas officials in Gaza.

The Palestinian official added that the strike on the power plant might be an additional factor pushing the sides toward a cease-fire, to avert a crisis. The plant had been Gaza’s main source of electricity in recent days, after eight of 10 lines that run from Israel were damaged.

The Palestinian announcement seemed to be part of a larger effort involving Egypt, an important participant in any cease-fire deal for both Israel and Abbas. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that Abbas had initiated a proposal to bring representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad to Cairo for another round of cease-fire talks, which Egypt supports.

Regarding the talks, Osama Hamdan, a Hamas official in Beirut, said: “On principle, we have no objection and accept. A delegation will be formed, and we might leave for Cairo soon.”

Israel favors Egypt as a broker, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described Egypt’s original proposal for a cease-fire, which Israel accepted and Hamas rejected, as “the only game in town.”

In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry signaled Tuesday that the Obama administration had not abandoned its hope of arranging a cease-fire.

Kerry emphasized that Netanyahu had told him on Monday that he might accept a truce if it would allow Israeli forces to continue to operate against Hamas’ tunnels, some of which run under the border into Israeli territory and have been used for attacks.

“Last night we talked, and the prime minister talked to me about an idea and a possibility of a cease-fire — he raised it with me, as he has consistently,” Kerry said at a news conference with his Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin.

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