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4 Palestinians reported killed in Gaza airstrikes
Palestinian demonstrators run to avoid tear gas and sound grenades fired by Israeli soldiers during a protest against the construction of Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank village of Nilin, near Ramallah, Tuesday, May 20, 2008. Israel says the barrier is necessary for security while Palestinians call it a land grab. - photo by Associated Press
    JERUSALEM — Israeli aircraft launched at least three attacks on Palestinians Tuesday, killing four including a 13-year-old boy, medical officials in the Gaza Strip said. Despite the violence, Israeli defense officials said an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire could take effect within days.
    Israel’s military confirmed the airstrikes, saying in the first raid that aircraft fired at a group of Palestinians launching rockets in northern Gaza. Palestinian doctors said a boy, 13, was decapitated and another youth was seriously injured. A witness said he saw a mobile rocket-launching stand in the area.
    In the second strike, the aircraft fired at Palestinians who were planting explosives along the fence in central Gaza, the military said. Palestinian doctors said one man, 32, was killed. His identity was not immediately known.
    Hamas said two of its fighters were killed and one wounded in a third Israeli attack, on the south side of Gaza City. The Israeli military said that its aircraft struck at a group of armed men in that area.
    Israel frequently launches airstrikes and brief land raids in the Gaza Strip in an effort to stop rocket fire that has killed two Israelis in the past two weeks. During this period, the Israeli strikes have killed 14 Palestinians, including two civilians. Israel holds the Hamas militant group, which violently seized control of Gaza last June, responsible for all violence emanating from the area.
    For months, Egypt has been trying to work out a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. After a trip to Egypt on Monday by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israeli defense officials said a truce could begin to take effect in the coming days. They spoke on condition on anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the talks.
    The officials said Barak had cleared the way for the truce by easing a previous demand that the cease-fire be conditioned on the release of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza.
    Instead, they said, Israel would agree to an initial truce in which both sides stop attacking each other. The fate of the soldier, Cpl. Gilad Schalit, along with Hamas’ demands that Israel ease an economic blockade of Gaza, would be addressed later, the officials said. They believe this could lead to Hamas acceptance in the coming days.
    Israel also has demanded that the second phase of the deal include an Egyptian agreement to halt all arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip.
    Egypt’s powerful intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Omar Suleiman, was meeting with a high-level Hamas delegation in Cairo on Tuesday, including officials from the group’s headquarters in Syria.
    Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said the group was seeking clarification on Israel’s position regarding the captured soldier. He suggested any demand that the soldier be released as part of a truce would derail the talks but did not say if the removal of this condition would clear the way for a deal.
    Public pressure has been mounting in Israel for a broad military offensive in the Gaza Strip to stop the rocket attacks.
    Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been reluctant to launch an operation due to the prospect that many Israelis and Palestinian civilians would be killed. Such action would also likely derail U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the rival Palestinian government in the West Bank.
    The U.N. agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees said Tuesday that fuel stocks in the Gaza Strip have reached such a low that within two or three days the U.N. will no longer be able to deliver food to the 1 million people it helps there.
    The food packages provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency each contain flour, rice, sugar, sunflower oil, powdered milk and a small tin of meat.
    Following the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Israel and Egypt closed their borders with the coastal strip for all but essential humanitarian traffic. Israel has tightened sanctions in recent months, trying to pressure Gazans to halt daily rocket fire at Israeli towns, causing widespread shortages of fuel and basic goods in Gaza.
    The blockade has led to relatively brief interruptions in aid distribution in the past.
    Also Tuesday, the military said it was investigating a May 9 incident in which five Israelis — among them four off-duty soldiers — were involved in the shooting death of a Palestinian near the West Bank city of Ramallah.
    An army spokeswoman said the Israelis were hiking without necessary military authorization in an area under joint Israeli and Palestinian control when they came upon an armed Palestinian and fired at him.
    Palestinian witnesses said the man, shot twice in the chest, was a local hunter stalking deer.

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