Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Death toll mounts in Mideast

Egypt leads ceasefire negotiations

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Israeli aircraft struck crowded areas in the Gaza Strip and killed a senior militant with a missile strike on a media centre Monday, driving up the Palestinian death toll to 96, as Israel broadened its targets in the six-day-old offensive meant to quell Hamas rocket fire on Israel.

Escalating its bombing campaign over the weekend, Israel began attacking homes of activists in Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza. These attacks have led to a sharp spike in civilian casualties, killing 24 in just under two days and doubling the number of civilians killed in the conflict, a Gaza health official said.

The rising toll came as Egyptian-led efforts to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas got into gear.

While Israel and Hamas were far apart in their demands, both sides said they were open to a diplomatic solution -- and prepared for further escalation if that failed.

The leader of Hamas took a tough stance, rejecting Israel's demands the militant group stop its rocket fire. Instead, Khaled Mashaal said, Israel must meet Hamas' demands for a lifting of the blockade of Gaza.

"We don't accept Israeli conditions, because it is the aggressor," he told reporters in Egypt. "We want a ceasefire along with meeting our demands."

An Israeli official said Israel hoped to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis as well and signalled Egypt was likely to play a key role in enforcing any truce.

"We prefer the diplomatic solution if it's possible. If we see it's not going to bear fruit, we can escalate," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomatic efforts underway.

The official said Israel doesn't want a "quick fix" that will result in renewed fighting months down the road. Instead, Israel wants "international guarantees" Hamas will not re-arm or use Egypt's neighbouring Sinai peninsula for militant activity.

Hamas fighters have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel in the current round of fighting, including 75 on Monday, among them one that hit an empty school. Twenty rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile battery, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Schools in southern Israel have been closed since the start of the offensive Wednesday.

A poll published in the Haaretz daily on Monday showed widespread support in Israel for the offensive. It said 84 per cent of the public supports the operation, with 12 per cent opposed. At the same time, it said, just 30 per cent of the public supports a ground invasion of Gaza. The poll, conducted by the Dialog agency, surveyed 520 people and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

Overall, the offensive that began Wednesday killed 96 Palestinians, including 50 civilians, and wounded some 720 people, Gaza heath official Ashraf al-Kidra said. Among the wounded were 225 children, he said.

On the Israeli side, three civilians have died from Palestinian rocket fire and dozens have been wounded. The rocket-defence system has intercepted hundreds of rockets bound for populated areas.

In Monday's violence, an Israeli airstrike on a highrise building in Gaza City killed Ramez Harb, a senior figure in Islamic Jihad's military wing, the Al Quds Brigades, the group said in a text message to reporters. A number of foreign and local news organizations have offices in the building, which was also struck on Sunday. A passerby was also killed, medics said. Thick, black smoke rose from the building. Paramedics said several people were wounded.

Islamic Jihad, a smaller sister group to Hamas, said it believed Harb was the target of the strike.

Israel has killed dozens of wanted militants in surgical strikes throughout the operation, the result, officials say, of intelligence gathered from its collection of high-flying drones overhead and a network of informants.

Before dawn Monday, a missile struck a three-storey home in Gaza City's Zeitoun area, flattening the building and badly damaging several nearby homes.

Shell-shocked residents searching for belongings climbed over debris of twisted metal and cement blocks in the street.

Egypt is trying to broker a ceasefire with the help of Turkey and Qatar. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and a delegation of Arab foreign ministers were expected in Gaza today.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 20, 2012 A9

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