JERUSALEM — Israel and its main militant Gaza adversary weighed an Egyptian cease-fire proposal late Monday, signaling a possible de-escalation of a week-old aerial battle that has left nearly 200 Palestinians dead from Israeli bombs and has sent hundreds of Gaza rockets deep into Israeli territory.
A senior government official in Israel, which has been preparing for the possibility of a ground invasion of Gaza, said it was seriously considering the Egyptian proposal. The initial reaction of Hamas, the dominant militant group in Gaza, was less committal, but was not an outright rejection.
The proposal envisioned a cease-fire beginning at 9 a.m. local time on Tuesday. It called for border crossings to Gaza to “be opened,” with the movement of people and goods to be “facilitated once the security situation becomes stable on the ground.” Within 48 hours of the initial cease-fire taking hold, talks are to be held in Cairo with the Israelis and the Palestinian militant factions on conditions for a longer-term truce, according to the text of the proposal.
An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ambassador Badr Abdelatty, said: “We hope it will be acknowledged. We are in close contact with everyone.”
Adding weight to the efforts, Secretary of State John Kerry was expected in Cairo as early as Tuesday, according to officials in the region.
The senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomacy, said a meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet had been called for Tuesday morning to discuss the proposal and that it was “being considered very seriously.”
Hamas, which had said it was prepared to fire rockets indefinitely, appeared to want better terms. Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official in Gaza, wrote on his Facebook page: “The responses of resistance will continue until the demands of our people are achieved. Any unilateral Israeli cessation has no value in the light of the large crimes and the disastrous humanitarian situation.” Osama Hamdan, a spokesman for the Islamic group, was more dismissive. He told CNN’s “The Situation Room” that Hamas did not receive the proposal directly from the Egyptians. That, he said, meant it was “an initiative for the media — it’s not a political initiative.”
One of Hamas’s demands has been the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, but the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the proposal refers only to crossings “between Israel and Gaza.”
Egypt is widely considered the natural regional mediator in such conflicts. But Egypt’s relations with Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, have turned bitter since the military ouster last year of Egypt’s elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, a leader in the Brotherhood. Under the new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former general who led the military takeover, Egypt has shut down most of the tunnels beneath its border with Gaza that were both an economic lifeline for the Palestinian coastal enclave as well as a major channel for weapons smuggling.
Tony Blair, the special envoy of the quartet of Middle East peacemakers, which included the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, welcomed the proposal in a statement. He said: “The hope is that this cease-fire will allow us to put in place such a long-term strategy for the future in Gaza and the West Bank. The international community will give its full backing to such an initiative.”
International entreaties for a cease-fire intensified in recent days amid growing alarm over the rising death toll in Gaza, but there was no letup in the hostilities on Monday. At least 14 Palestinians were killed on the seventh day of Israel’s air offensive aimed at quelling the rocket fire, bringing the total death toll in Gaza to about 180, many of them civilians. An airstrike on a house in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip killed a girl, 4, her father and her uncle, according to Gaza health officials.
In a statement, Pierre Krähenbühl, the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, which assists Palestinian refugees, called on the Israeli Army to “put an end to attacks against, or endangering, civilians and civilian infrastructure,” and for an end to rocket fire from Gaza.
On Tuesday, the State Department issued a statement supporting the cease-fire efffort.
“We welcome Egypt’s call for a cease-fire and hope this will lead to the restoration of calm as soon as possible,” Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said in the statement.
“Secretary Kerry has been deeply engaged in conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Egyptian government officials and President Abbas throughout this difficult period, and the United States remains committed to working with them and our regional partners to find a resolution to this dangerous and volatile situation,” she added.
A senior State Department official said that Mr. Kerry, in trying to facilitate a cease-fire, had spoken with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, four times since Saturday. Mr. Kerry also spoke with his Egyptian and Qatari counterparts twice during that period, and with the Turkish and Jordanian foreign ministers once since Saturday.
At a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan on Monday night, President Obama said the administration was encouraged by the Egyptian proposal. He also called the images of violence in Gaza and Israel “heart wrenching” and said the United States would do “everything we can to facilitate a return to the 2012 cease-fire.”
The president repeated his criticism of what he called “inexcusable” rocket attacks by Hamas, saying that Israel had the right to defend itself.
But he also noted what he called a longstanding “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza and said further escalation of the violence between Israel and the Palestinians benefited neither side.
In a telephone interview, the commander of Israel’s 107th Squadron, which is engaged in Gaza using F-16 fighters, said that the air force was working methodically according to “a clear policy of minimum harm to civilians,” but that everybody knew Gaza, a densely populated sliver of land, was not a “sterile area.” Under military rules governing the interview, the commander could not be identified by name.
Hamas has fired about 1,000 rockets at Israel over the last week, hitting new targets as far north as Hadera, about 60 miles from Gaza, and keeping millions of Israelis running for shelter at the wail of the sirens. On Monday a rocket struck a Bedouin village in the Negev desert and injured two sisters, ages 15 and 10, one of them severely, according to the Israeli police.
Egypt helped broker the last cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that ended eight days of fierce cross-border fighting in November 2012, but the quiet lasted only about 19 months.
Israel has said that this time it wanted to achieve quiet for a long period of time, whether through military means or diplomacy, and ministers had called for Hamas to be stripped of its weapons. With Israeli forces massed along the Gaza border prepared for an invasion, some right-wing politicians criticized the cease-fire contacts, complaining that Israel had not finished the job.
Israeli officials have said that Hamas was looking for some kind of an achievement, a “victory image,” before giving up the fight. That may have come on Monday when it flew an unmanned aircraft into Israel, apparently for the first time. The Israeli military said it intercepted the drone, blowing it apart in midair just offshore from the Israeli port city of Ashdod with a Patriot surface-to-air missile.
The military wing of Hamas claimed on its website that it had sent “a number of drones” flying into Israel on “special missions,” saying that the aircraft were one of the “surprises” it had promised over the last week. It was not clear whether the drone, intercepted about 14 miles north of the Gaza Strip, was carrying explosives or surveillance equipment.
“It was shot to smithereens,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman.