Hillary Clinton in Israel

Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to support Israeli security on Tuesday while calling for a quick de-escalation of Gaza fighting that raged on unabated amid signs of an emerging truce deal.

The top US diplomat flew in for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as efforts continued across the region to refine an elusive accord to end a week of violence that has cost 136 Palestinian and five Israeli lives.

The Israeli army confirmed its first fatality from rocket attacks on Tuesday, and a defence ministry official was also killed, while another missile landed harmlessly just south of Jerusalem on a day of continued strikes from Gaza.

The unrelenting violence also claimed the lives of 26 more Palestinians and witnessed an Israeli strike on a Gaza City building that houses foreign media organisations including AFP — the third such strike in three days.

Clinton told Netanyahu — a right-winger who has had strained relations with US President Barack Obama’s administration in the past year — that Washington’s commitment to Israeli security was “rock solid and unwavering.”

But she also stressed that this “is why we believe it is essential to de-escalate the situation” in the Palestinian territory.

Clinton further indicated that any truce announcement may not emerge until after she completes visits to the West Bank capital of Ramallah and Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

“In these days ahead, the United States will work with our partners here in Israel and across the region for an outcome that bolsters security for the peace of Israel, improves conditions for the people of Gaza and moves toward a comprehensive peace for all people of the region,” said Clinton.

Optimistic negotiators had initially said a deal could be announced in Cairo later Tuesday following days of negotiations brokered by Egypt’s new Islamist leadership.

“There will be a joint press conference between Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the Egyptian mediators tonight to announce the truce,” an Islamic Jihad source told AFP in Gaza City. A Hamas source separately backed up the report.

But Hamas later said in a statement that there was no truce accord, stressing that it could only be announced by Egypt and calling on Palestinian armed groups to “continue to riposte against Israel’s crimes.”

And an Egyptian official told AFP in Cairo that “the truce announcement is not expected tonight because we are still waiting for a response” from the Jewish state.

A meeting was held between Egypt’s intelligence chief Rafat Shehata and top-level delegations from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but it wound up with no agreement being reached on a ceasefire, a source close to the discussions told AFP in Cairo.

“Hamas and Islamic Jihad told the Egyptians they weren’t in a hurry, and it was Israel that had asked Egypt for a truce,” the source said.

“Hamas says it has not yet received a reply from Israel and asks all the media not to rush. It is the Egyptian presidency that will announce a truce if an accord is reached. Any declaration before that, or different from that, is irresponsible.”

An Israeli diplomatic source told AFP that negotiations were ongoing.

“We are working very hard using our diplomatic channels. We are working continuously. But I cannot give you an estimated time of arrival (of a truce),” the source said.

The bloodshed meanwhile showed no signs of abating as the military pressed on with its bombardment of northern Gaza positions from which most of the militants’ rockets have been launched.

Netanyahu told Clinton he was ready to agree to a “long-term solution” as long as the rocket attacks from Gaza stopped.

“If there’s a possibility of achieving a long-term solution for this problem by diplomatic means, we prefer it. But if not, I’m sure you understand that Israel will have to take every action necessary to defend its people,” he said.

A senior Hamas official told AFP in Cairo that a key sticking point was whether Israel would begin easing its six-year-old blockade of Gaza coinciding with the truce or at a later date.

“A compromise solution is for there to be agreement on lifting the siege, and that it would be implemented later at a specified time,” he said.

Netanyahu and his key ministers decided in a closed-door meeting late Monday to place “a temporary hold on a ground incursion to give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” a senior Israeli official told AFP.

The move came as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met Netanyahu and again urged all parties to end fire “immediately”.

A delegation of more than 10 Arab foreign ministers and other senior representatives also visited Gaza in a symbolic show of solidarity with the Palestinians — the latest in a string of regional leaders’ visits to the impoverished coastal enclave.

“The real problem is not a truce,” Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi told reporters in Gaza City.

“The real problem that the Arab and Islamic countries and all friendly countries in the world must focus on is ending the occupation,” the organisation’s secretary general said.

Hamas is understood to be seeking guarantees that Israel will stop its targeted killings and end its blockade.

Israel for its part is believed to be looking for a 24- to 48-hour truce as a buffer to work out a more permanent arrangement.

The Security Council held talks late Tuesday to discuss a demand by Arab nations that it hold a public meeting on the crisis.

Western diplomats had expressed fears that comments made at an open meeting could harm efforts to reach a ceasefire, but they agreed to hold the meeting on Wednesday at 2000 GMT. – AFP