U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Israel on Tuesday for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aimed at helping forge a truce with Hamas in Gaza, the State Department said.
“The American commitment to Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering. That is why we believe it is essential to de-escalate the situation in Gaza,” Clinton said at a brief press appearance with Netanyahu before the two entered closed-door talks.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu said that Israel is prepared to escalate its Gaza Strip offensive but would prefer a long-term diplomatic solution to the threat of rockets from the Palestinian enclave.
After meeting Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday night, Clinton is scheduled to meet Palestinian leaders in the West Bank on Wednesday morning before heading to Cairo for talks the same day with President Mohammed Mursi.
A Hamas official said on Tuesday that Egyptian efforts to broker a truce with Israel had been held up because the Israeli government had yet to respond to proposals, indicating there would be no ceasefire until Wednesday at the earliest.
“The Israeli side has not responded yet, so we will not hold a (news) conference this evening and must wait until tomorrow,” Ezzat al-Rishq, a senior Hamas leader, told Reuters. “The truce is now held up because we are waiting for the Israeli side to respond,” he added in a short telephone interview.
Previously, Hamas official Ayman Taha said Israel and Palestinians from the Gaza Strip have agreed to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that will come into force at midnight local (2200 GMT).
"An agreement for calm has been reached. It will be declared at 9.00 p.m. and go into effect at midnight," Taha said.
While Hamas earlier indicated that a truce could start later Tuesday, there was no confirmation from the Israeli side. But Israel said it will put a “temporary hold” on Gaza ground operation.
On Tuesday, the Israeli army gave Gaza City residents leaflets ordering them to evacuate “immediately,” heightening fears that a ground invasion might be imminent.
The orders came after an Israeli air strike on Gaza killed at least five people on Tuesday, as a delegation of Arab ministers arrived in the territory, the Hamas health ministry said.
“Five people were killed and two others wounded in an Israeli air strike on the Sabra neighborhood,” health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra told AFP.
However, the announcement of the truce coincided with what President Mursi said.
Mursi said Israel’s “aggression” against Gaza will end on Tuesday and Cairo-mediated efforts will produce “positive results” within hours, the official MENA news agency reported.
“The farce of the Israeli aggression will end today, Tuesday, and the efforts to reach a ceasefire between the Palestinians and Israelis will produce positive results within a few hours,” it quoted him as saying.
A Hamas official said chief Khaled Meshaal and his negotiators were currently in a meeting with the intelligence chief. “But it’s no secret we’re on the verge of an agreement,” he said.
News of Clinton’s trip came as Israeli leaders Tuesday discussed an Egyptian plan for a truce with Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group, and after the death toll from Israeli raids on the enclave rose to more than 100.
Senior Israeli ministers decided overnight to delay any ground invasion of the Gaza Strip to give Egyptian-led truce efforts a chance to work.
Palestinian officials said Clinton would visit Ramallah in the West Bank on Wednesday morning for talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
Palestinian rockets reach Jerusalem
Despite efforts to bring an effective truce between Israelis and Palestinians, a Palestinian rocket struck the outskirts of Jerusalem on Tuesday, landing harmlessly in an open area in one of the longest rocket strikes fired from the Gaza Strip in nearly a week of fighting.
The rocket attack, the second aimed at the holy city since an Israeli offensive began a week ago, set off air raid sirens throughout the metropolis. A distant explosion could be heard in the city's downtown. Jerusalem residents ran for cover as buses and trains stopped to let passengers off.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the rocket landed in Gush Etzion, a collection of Jewish West Bank settlements southeast of the city. Last Friday’s attempt to hit Jerusalem landed in the same area. No one was wounded in either attack.
Jerusalem, nearly 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Gaza, is the most distant city the militants have targeted, signaling an increasing sophistication in their arsenal.
The attacks aimed at Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area have dramatically showcased the militants’ new capabilities, including a locally made M-75 rocket that appears to have taken Israeli defense officials by surprise.
Both areas had remained outside the gunmen’s reach in past rounds of fighting, and their use dramatically escalated the hostilities. For more than a decade, the militants’ range had been limited to steadily broadening sections of southern Israel.
The attack on Jerusalem was especially audacious, both for its symbolism and its distance from Gaza. Jerusalem had previously been considered beyond the range of Gaza rockets - and an unlikely target because it is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third-holiest shrine.
U.N. human rights chief
The U.N.’s human rights chief pressed Israel on Tuesday to avoid strikes on civilian structures in Gaza, and UNICEF said children in the enclave were showing signs of severe trauma after direct hits on dwellings that have killed dozens of civilians.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also reminded both parties - Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement - to the week-old conflict of their obligation to comply with humanitarian law to minimize civilian casualties.
Israel has said its six-day old series of strikes in which more than 120 Palestinians have been killed is a response to the rocket attacks for the six day offensive.
Later on Tuesday, an Israeli soldier and a civilian were killed by Gaza rockets and an Iranian-built Fajr 5 scored a direct hit on a residential building in greater Tel Aviv causing major damage, officials said.
Meanwhile, the United States on Tuesday blocked a U.N. Security Council statement on the Gaza conflict, arguing that it would have been “counter-productive” amid efforts to reach a ceasefire.