JERUSALEM — Israel and the Hamas militant group edged closer to a cease-fire Tuesday to end a weeklong Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, but after a day of furious diplomatic efforts involving the U.S. secretary of state, U.N. chief and Egypt's president, a deal remained elusive and fighting raged on both sides of the border.
If there is a possibility of achieving a long-term solution to this problem by diplomatic means, we prefer that. But if not, then I am sure you will understand that Israel will have to take whatever actions are necessary to defend its people, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a late-night meeting with visiting Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Standing alongside the Israeli leader, Clinton indicated it could take some time to iron out an agreement.
In the days ahead, the United States will work with our partners here in Israel and across the region toward an outcome that bolsters security for the people of Israel, improves conditions for the people of Gaza and moves toward a comprehensive peace for all people of the region, she said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Clinton met with Netanyahu and other Israeli officials for two hours.
They discussed efforts to de-escalate the situation and bring about a sustainable outcome that protects Israel's security and improves the lives of civilians in Gaza, Nuland said. They also consulted on her impending stops in Ramallah and Cairo, including Egyptian efforts to advance de-escalation.
Israel launched the offensive on Nov. 14 in a bid to end months of rocket attacks out of the Hamas-run territory, which lies on Israel's southern flank. After assassinating Hamas' military chief, it has carried out a blistering campaign of airstrikes, targeting rocket launchers, storage sites and wanted militants.
The campaign has killed more than 130 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, and wounded hundreds of others. Five Israelis have been killed by rocket fire, including a soldier and a civilian contractor on Tuesday.
In a meeting with Netanyahu, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon condemned Palestinian rocket attacks, but urged Israel to show maximum restraint.
Further escalation benefits no one, he said.
Israel demands an end to rocket fire from Gaza and a halt to weapons smuggling into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt. It also wants international guarantees that Hamas will not rearm or use Egypt's Sinai region, which abuts both Gaza and southern Israel, to attack Israelis.
Hamas wants Israel to halt all attacks on Gaza and lift tight restrictions on trade and movement in and out of the territory that have been in place since Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007. Israel has rejected such demands in the past.
Israeli media quoted Defense Minister Ehud Barak as telling a closed meeting that Israel wanted a 24-hour test period of no rocket fire to see if Hamas could enforce a truce.
Palestinian officials briefed on the negotiations said Hamas wanted assurances of a comprehensive deal that included new border arrangements — and were resisting Israeli proposals for a phased agreement. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The U.S. considers Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide and other attacks, to be a terror group and does not meet with its officials. The Obama administration blames Hamas for the latest eruption of violence and says Israel has the right to defend itself. At the same time, it has warned against a ground invasion, saying it could send casualties spiraling.