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Israel halts threatened Gaza invasion as truce talks build

Israel halts threatened Gaza invasion as truce talks build
Jerusalem:  Israel on Tuesday halted a threatened Gaza ground offensive to give Egyptian-led truce talks a chance as top diplomats flew in to boost efforts to end nearly a week of cross-border violence.

The move came as UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged both Israel and Gaza militants to stop their fire "immediately" as he held talks in Cairo aimed at securing a deal between the Jewish state and Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers.

And US officials said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would break away from an Asia visit to travel to Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah, with West Bank sources saying she was to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday.

After the first night without Palestinian deaths since Israel launched its relentless bombing campaign on November 14, the toll rose to 116 on Tuesday morning when another six people were killed, including a 15-year-old boy who was trying to catch birds, medics said.

And Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi was expected to arrive in war-torn Gaza at the head of a 12-strong delegation of ministers for the latest in a string of top-level solidarity visits.

Israel's move to hold off on a ground operation was taken during a late-night meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his key ministers.

"A decision was taken that for the time being, there is a temporary hold on a ground incursion to give diplomacy a chance to succeed," a top Israeli official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"They discussed both the state of the diplomacy and the military operation," he said of talks which are understood to have focused an Egyptian proposal laid out in the talks between a Hamas team led by Khaled Meshaal and an Israeli envoy.

Israel is looking for a 24- to 48-hour truce as a buffer to work out a more permanent arrangement, with Tuesday's talks "expected to be decisive," Haaretz newspaper said.

But it is pressing on with its troop build-up along the Gaza border regardless, said the Israeli official.

"If we see that diplomacy does not bear fruit - and the time we've given to diplomacy is limited -- all the preparations are being undertaken so that if and when the order is given the ground incursion can happen expeditiously," he said.

Hamas is understood to be seeking guarantees Israel will stop its targeted killings, and end its six-year blockade on the coastal territory home to 1.6 million people.

As diplomatic efforts intensified to end the bloodshed before Israel's campaign escalates into an invasion, the UN chief urged both sides to hold their fire, warning any continuation would endanger the whole region.

"All sides must halt fire immediately," Ban said in Cairo after talks with the Arab League chief.

"Further escalating the situation will put the entire region at risk," he said, warning an Israeli ground offensive "would only result in further tragedy".

Analysts say a ground war could draw in other regional powers, including Israel's arch foe, Iran.

Tehran on Tuesday accused Israel of being solely responsible for the conflict, and said it should be tried for "war crimes" while stressing the Palestinians must be armed to defend themselves, echoing an earlier call from Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah who called for Arab leaders to "send rockets and arms" to Gaza.

The UN secretary general was expected to arrive in Jerusalem by 1230 GMT for talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and President Shimon Peres, and was to meet other top Israeli and Palestinian officials on Wednesday.

Inside Gaza, where 116 people have been killed and more than 920 injured in the Israeli bombardment, many families have fled their homes in northern Gaza, which has taken the brunt of the air strikes, to seek safe haven in the south.

Since the violence erupted on November 14 with an Israeli targeted killing of top Hamas military commander Ahmed Jaabari, Gaza militants have fired more than 1,000 rockets at the Jewish state, killing three people and injuring dozens.

Of those, 715 have crashed into southern Israel and another 359 were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system.

The violence comes as Israel heads towards a general election in January, raising the spectre of a broader Israeli military campaign along the lines of its devastating 22-day Operation Cast Lead launched at the end of December 2008.
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