Israel Closes In on Heavily Populated Gaza City

Israeli strikes on Hamas targets by air and from gunboats at sea continued as negotiations to end the dispute pushed forward in Cairo. Black smoke rose over Gaza City’s suburbs, where the two sides exchanged fire throughout the night, the Associated Press reported.

Israel launched a broad offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers on Dec. 27 in a bid to stop rocket fire into southern Israeli towns after a six-month cease-fire expired. The military operation escalated with Israel’s decision to send ground troops into Gaza, driving the fighting closer to population centers in the Palestinian territory.

Hamas continued its rocket fire into southern Israel Monday, according to media reports. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has stated that the goal of the Israeli offensive is to stop the rocket fire. Olmert said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday that they were “close” to reaching that goal.

“But patience, determination and effort are still needed to realize these goals in a manner that will change the security situation in the south,” Olmert said.

On Monday, special Mideast envoy Tony Blair said in Cairo that “the elements of an agreement” between Israel and Hamas were in place, the Washington Post reported. Under the Egyptian-brokered deal, Hamas would stop all rocket fire into Israel and Egypt would close smuggling tunnels that cross its border into Gaza in return for a cease-fire from Israel and the opening of crossings into the Gaza Strip.

The international community, led by the United Nations, has called for a cease-fire in the conflict that has killed nearly 900 Palestinians and 13 Israelis since the conflict began, according to medical officials. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to travel to the Middle East this week.

Hamas’ political leader Khaled Meshal said Israel must end its assault and open all crossings before Hamas can consider a cease-fire.

Meshal remains in exile in Damascus, Syria, and the group’s leaders in Gaza cannot be reached as they continue to hide from Israeli attacks.

The Israeli reserve forces waiting along the Gazan border will be used to secure more areas within the Gaza Strip, said Israeli’s chief military spokesman Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu on Sunday. Palestinian residents were warned of an escalation in ground assaults through leaflets dropped from planes.

“The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) is not working against the people of Gaza but against Hamas and the terrorists only,” the leaflets read in Arabic. “Stay safe by following our orders.”

“We are safe, but we don’t know for how long,” Khamis Alawi, a resident of Sheikh Ajleen, a neighborhood in the north of Gaza City where Israeli troops began their advance further into the city, told the AP.

The ground invasion began on Jan. 3 after a week of airstrikes. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas took control in June 2007 after coming to power in parliamentary elections.

Over the weekend, thousands protested Israel’s attacks on Gaza in major European cities including Brussels and Rome as well as in Egypt.

In London, Manchester, Prague and Dublin, people gathered in support for Israel.