JERUSALEM - Israel and the Hamas militant group edged closer to a cease-fire Tuesday to end a weeklong Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, but after a day of furious diplomatic efforts involving the U.S. secretary of state, U.N. chief and Egypt's president, a deal remained elusive and fighting raged on both sides of the border.
Israeli tanks and gunboats pummeled targets in Gaza in what appeared to be a last-minute burst of fire, while at least 200 rockets were fired into Israel. As talks dragged on near midnight, Israeli and Hamas officials, communicating through Egyptian mediators, expressed hope that a deal would soon be reached, but cautioned that it was far from certain.
"If there is a possibility of achieving a long-term solution to this problem by diplomatic means, we prefer that. But if not, then I am sure you will understand that Israel will have to take whatever actions are necessary to defend its people," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a late-night meeting with visiting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
A damaged residential building is seen after it was hit by a rocket fired by militants from the Gaza Strip, in the Israeli central city of Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv, Tuesday. A diplomatic push to end Israel's nearly weeklong offensive in the Gaza Strip gained momentum Tuesday, with Egypt's president predicting that airstrikes would end within hours and Israel's prime minister saying his country would be a 'willing partner' to a cease-fire with the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Clinton was hastily dispatched to the region by President Barack Obama to join a high-profile group of world leaders working to halt the violence. Standing alongside the Israeli leader, Clinton indicated it could take some time to iron out an agreement.
"In the days ahead, the United States will work with our partners here in Israel and across the region toward an outcome that bolsters security for the people of Israel, improves conditions for the people of Gaza and moves toward a comprehensive peace for all people of the region," she said.
Clinton expressed sorrow for the heavy loss of life on both sides, but called for the Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel to end and stressed that the American commitment to Israel's security is "rock solid."
"The goal must be a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security and legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike," she said.