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US, Israel Sign Agreement to Help Truce in Gaza

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni signed a deal in Washington Friday to halt arms smuggling into Gaza as part of intensifying efforts to clinch a ceasefire.

Smoke rises from Gaza City after an Israeli rocket strike

Violence continues in Gaza despite urgent diplomatic efforts to secure a truce

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the memorandum of understanding would improve information sharing between the two countries to prevent the weapons from reaching Hamas in Gaza, one of Israel's chief goals in its three-week incursion into the Gaza Strip.

The deal "should be thought of as one of the elements of trying to help bring into being a durable ceasefire ... that can actually hold," Rice said in Washington, adding she hoped a truce would be reached "very, very soon."

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who was in Washington to sign the agreement, called it a "historic" deal that was a "vital component for the cessation of hostilities."

Only through a "united effort" to combat terrorism could a ceasefire between the two sides be achieved, Livni said.

Israel launched its Gaza offensive on December 27 in a bid to curb near-daily rocket and mortar attacks from the strip at its south.

More than 1,100 Palestinians have been killed in the offensive. Thirteen Israelis have also been killed, including three civilians.

UN chief calls for unilateral truce

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is asking for Israel to declare a humanitarian truce

Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in the West Bank city of Ramallah Friday for talks with Palestinian officials, reiterated that the situation in Gaza had become "unbearable" and urged Israel to declare an urgent unilateral humanitarian truce, before finalizing a long-term ceasefire in talks with Egypt and Washington.

Those talks, he nevertheless said, were "close" to reaching a truce and could come to fruition in "a couple of days."

"There is no time to lose. If we wait one more day, there will be more killings and destruction,” he told a news conference with Palestinian caretaker Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Negotiations underway

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni with her German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has been holding talks with western leaders

At the same as Livni met with Rice in Washington, Israeli negotiator, Amos Gilad, was returning to Egypt Friday with instructions from caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Livni.

Only after his return from Cairo was Israel's final response on the Egyptian initiative expected. A Defence Ministry spokeswoman said she did not know when he would return and when the cabinet was likely to hold the vote.

Egyptian Initiative

The Egyptian initiative calls for an immediate short-term "humanitarian" truce during which Egypt will lead indirect negotiations on a longer-term ceasefire, that should include guarantees against border security -- an Israeli demand - nd an end to the economic blockade of Gaza - a Hamas demand.

That short-term truce could last anything between five days to two weeks - during which the Israeli military would gradually withdraw from Gaza - while the long-term truce could last one year.

The initiative also calls on Hamas and its bitter rival, the Fatah party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to resume reconciliation talks that would eventually end the split between Gaza and the Abbas-run West Bank.

Fighting continues

A mobile artillery piece fires towards targets in the Gaza Strip, from the Israeli side of the border with Gaza, southern Israel, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009

The fighting continues in Gaza, despite the negotiations

The latest round of diplomacy came amid the worst day of fighting in Gaza Thursday in Israel's now 21-day offensive, in which Israel shelled a UN compound, killed one of Hamas' top three leaders in Gaza, and made the deepest advance into Gaza City yet, sparking intense battles with local militants little more than a kilometer from the heart of the city.

Hamas vowed to avenge the death of its de-facto Interior Minister Said Siam, who also headed its security forces, and declared Friday another "day of rage" calling for protests in the West Bank.

As ground troops withdrew from Gaza City, the Israel Air Force kept up its attacks, striking another 40 targets, including a mosque in northern Gaza allegedly storing rockets, several more rocket launching sites and smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt.

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