Air strikes shook the Gaza Strip and Palestinian rockets struck across the border into southern Israel as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks in Jerusalem in the early hours of Wednesday, seeking a truce that can hold back Israel's ground troops amid reports that a truce deal between Israel and Hamas was imminent.
Reports from Gaza cited IAF strikes throughout the night, and rocket attacks renewed Wednesday morning after a quiet night, with the Code Red siren sounding in many communities in the South.
An initial halt to attacks may, however, not see the sides stand their forces down from battle stations immediately; Clinton, who flies to Cairo to see Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi later on Wednesday, spoke of a deal "in the days ahead."
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said his movement was waiting for Israel’s response to a cease-fire proposal. Abu Zuhri said that the Egyptian presidency would announce any cease-fire agreement when and if it was reached.
Israel Radio quoted an Israeli official saying a truce was held up due to "a last-minute delay in the understandings between Hamas and Israel".
In the meantime, Hamas and other Palestinian groups would continue to respond to Israeli “crimes,” he said.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held a meeting with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman before meeting with Clinton.
“America’s commitment to Israel’s security is rock sold and unwavering. That is why we believe it is essential to de-escalate the situation in Gaza,” Clinton said before meeting Netanyahu.
The rocket attacks against Israel must end and calm must be restored, she said.
“The goal must be a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security and legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Clnton said.
“Our hearts break for the loss of every civilian, Israeli and Palestinian. I know that today was a difficult day and I offer my deepest condolences to the loved ones of the lost and injured.
The Gaza crisis, she said, underscores the urgency to find an outcome that bolsters Israeli security, improves living conditions for the people in Gaza and moves toward a comprehensive peace for all people in the region.
She said she planned to discuss this with Netanyahu, and later with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, before heading on Wednesday to Cairo.
Egypt, she said, has the responsibility and the opportunity to play a crucial and constructive role in restoring calm.
Clinton carefully avoided the word “cease-fire” in her remarks with Netanyahu and referred instead to “de-escalation.”
She said that what was needed was to end the rocket fire and restore calm, to create space to address “broader issues.”
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reports in Washington that Clinton, as well as US President Barack Obama, have been in touch with Egyptian, Israeli and European leaders in the past days, Nuland said.
Obama spoke on the telephone on Tuesday with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi about ways to restore calm between Gaza and Israel.
Clinton’s arrival followed a visit earlier in the day by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He spent the morning in Cairo.
Ban then arrived in Jerusalem to meet with Israeli leaders. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who was in Israel on Tuesday morning, flew to Cairo.
At a joint press conference with Ban, Netanyahu said, “If a long-term diplomatic solution can be put in place through diplomatic means, than Israel would be a willing partner.”
Already on Sunday, Israel agreed to hold off on a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip, to allow time for diplomacy to work.
But, Netanyahu told Ban, “If stronger military actions prove necessary to stop the constant barrage of rockets, Israel will not hesitate to do what is necessary to defend our people.”
Since Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense on Wednesday, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Germany have defended its right to protect its citizens from Hamas rockets.
But a number of international leaders have cautioned that they would not support a ground offensive.
Ban went further and hinted to Netanyahu that it could be illegal under international law.
The prime minister said that Hamas was committing a “double war crime," by indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians while they hide behind their own.
“The moment we draw symmetry between the victims of terror and the unintended casualties that result from legitimate military action against the terrorists, the minute that false symmetry is drawn, the terrorists win,” he said.
As someone who only nine months ago visited Sderot, Ban said, “I know how difficult the situation is here.” But, he added, a ground operation would only result in further tragedy.
“Israeli rockets may be aimed at military targets inside Gaza, [but] they kill and injure civilians and damage civilian infrastructures.
“The loss of civilian lives is unacceptable under any circumstances. The excessive use of force is unlawful and must be rejected,” Ban said.
Liberman, in his meeting with Ban, repeated for him the message that he gave the German foreign minister earlier in the day.
“Public calls from the international community to refrain from [IDF] ground activity [in Gaza] strengthens Hamas and extends the conflict,” Liberman said.
Westerwelle pledged his country’s support both for Israel’s right to defend itself and for its basic demand that Hamas stop firing rockets.
“There is one key condition for everything else, and that is the stop of the missile attacks against Israel,” he said.
He added, “I’m here to underline that Germany stands by our friends in Israel, and Israel has every right to defend itself and protect their own citizens against these missile attacks from Gaza into your country.”
After Westerwelle left for Cairo, Hamas spokesman Ayman Taha declared that a cease-fire agreement had been reached under the auspices of the Egyptians.
He said it would go into effect at midnight, following a 9 p.m. press conference. He described the ostensible armistice accord as a “victory” for the Palestinian armed groups.
But, in the end, no press conference was held and no cease-fire was announced.
Another top Hamas official, Ezat Risheq, later denied the reports about an agreement. He said he did not expect any agreement to be announced on Tuesday night. He added that as far as the Palestinians were concerned, “all options remain open.
Reuters and Jpost.com Staff contributed to this report.