Cairo - A six-day negotiation led by Egypt neared a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, a development that would mark a major de-escalation in a conflict that has killed at least 116 Palestinians and four Israelis and threatened to devolve into all-out war.
But the first deadline for the announcement, 9 p.m. local time, came and went without a deal, and an adviser to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who'd initially expressed optimism that agreement had been reached, said it was uncertain when the announcement would be made.
A stumbling block appeared to be the two sides' distrust of one another. Israeli officials, whio denied that a settlement had been reached, said that first they wanted a 24-hour period of calm before agreeing to a broader cease-fire. A Hamas official, Ayman Taha, told the Reuters news agency that there was an agreement Tuesday.
Even as talk a cease-fire grew, Israel continued its aerial and sea bombardment of Gaza, intended to cripple Hamas’ ability to fire rockets into Israel. The Israeli military reported its first death in the conflict, an 18-year-old soldier. At least 116 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli bombardment; three Israelis were killed last week when a rocket fired from Gaza slammed into a building inside Israel.
The conflicting reports created uncertainty here about whether the conflict was headed toward escalation or cease-fire. On Monday, Israeli soldiers stationed near the border with Gaza said they had been told to stand down from the high state of alert that had them poised on Sunday to storm into Gaza.
The possibility of a cease-fire deal came as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rushed to the region from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she had been attending a meeting of Asian leaders. Clinton was expected to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem at midnight local time. She also was expected to visit Ramallah, the West Bank city that is the capital of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian government that both Israel and the United States recognize, before traveling on to Cairo.
While the United States has not been brokering the cease-fire talks, the prospect of Clinton’s arrival in the region pushed both sides to reach agreement before she arrived, knowledgeable officials said. One State Department official, speaking on the promise of anonymity, said Clinton had no specific agenda, other than encouraging the sides to reach agreement. "Sometimes there’s no substitute for showing up," the official said.
Egypt, which has been navigating Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood’s longtime support of Hamas and its practical interests in stability in the region, has sought to show that while the face of the government had changed, Egypt’s interests and role as a peace broker had not. That Morsi’s government, led by intelligence officials shuttling between the two sides, could broker a deal would solidify Morsi’s place as an international leader.
But throughout the week, there have been questions about whether Egypt could lead a deal without the United States intervention. On Monday, President Barack Obama called Morsi and Netanyahu. Shortly afterward, the White House announced Clinton would travel to the region immediately. The president spoke to Morsi for a third time Tuesday, the second call between the two leaders in less than 24 hours.
“President Obama underscored once again the importance of working for a de-escalation to the conflict in Gaza. He commended President Morsi’s efforts to pursue de-escalation. And he also underscored that President Morsi’s efforts reinforce the important role that President Morsi and Egypt play on behalf of regional security and the pursuit of broader peace between the Palestinians and Israelis,” White House Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with Obama in Phnom Penh, adding: “Without an end to rocket fire into Israel from Gaza, Israel can’t be assured of the security of its people.”
The terms of the tentative agreement remain unclear but Israel has demanded that Hamas to stop launching rockets into its borders, Hamas has demanded an end to the five-year blockade on Gaza and for Israel to stop assassinating it leaders.
Earlier today, Egyptian officials hinted at a possible agreement. As he was leaving his sister’s funeral, Morsi told attendees that "aggression on Gaza will end today and efforts to reach a truce will yield positive results in a few coming hours,” according to the state news service.
Yet soon after Morsi spoke, Israel began dropping leaflets on Gaza urging residents to evacuate to city centers. On Tuesday at least eight people were killed, including two cameramen from Hamas-owned al Aqsa television station.
The weeklong fighting has injured more than 1,000 Palestinians.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.