Fighting continues as Israel considers peace plan

JERUSALEM _ Plumes of smoke engulfed a neighborhood east of Gaza City on Wednesday as Israel’s leaders considered a peace plan put forth by France and Egypt on the 12th day of their campaign to stop rocket fire into Israel.

Sounds of heavy gunfire engulfed the Zeitoun neighborhood east of Gaza City and Israel said it struck 40 Hamas targets during the hours of darkness. One morning airstrike killed four people, Gaza officials said, but their identities were unclear.

The Islamic militants said they ambushed an Israeli tank and set it ablaze. However, the Israeli military said it had no information on any such incident and previous Hamas announcements of hitting Israeli troops have proved unfounded.

The fighting comes a day after France and Egypt announced a plan to stop the fighting, an initiative spurred on by an Israeli mortar strike near a United Nations school that killed at least 30 Palestinians and stained the streets with blood.

The U.N. said the school was sheltering hundreds of people displaced by the onslaught on Hamas militants. Israel said its troops returned fire on a Hamas squad that fired mortars at them.

In the wake of the criticism over civilian casualties, Israel agreed to set up a “humanitarian corridor” to ship vital supplies into the Gaza Strip. Under the plan put forward by the Israeli Defense Ministry, Israel would suspend attacks in certain areas to allow people to get supplies.

The Egyptian and French presidents released no details of their proposal, saying only that it involved an immediate cease-fire to permit humanitarian aid into Gaza and talks to settle the differences between Israel and Hamas, which rules the small coastal territory.

They said they were awaiting a response from Israel. Officials in Jerusalem declined comment on the announcement, which came amid diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and other nations to resolve a conflict that has seen 600 Palestinians killed.

Eleven Israelis have been killed since the offensive began: three civilians and a soldier by rocket fire and seven soldiers in the ground offensive, according to Israeli officials.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed the initiative but cautioned that no agreement would succeed unless it halted Hamas rocket attacks on Israel and arms smuggling into Gaza.

Earlier on Tuesday, President-elect Barack Obama broke his silence on the crisis, saying that “the loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern for me.” He declined to go further, reiterating his stance that the U.S. has only one president at a time.

Israel’s military said its shelling at the school _ the deadliest single episode since Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza on Saturday following a weeklong air bombardment _ was an attack on a military target and accused Hamas militants of using civilians as cover.

Two residents of the area who spoke with The Associated Press by telephone said they saw a small group of militants firing mortar rounds from a street near the school, where 350 people had gathered to get away from the shelling. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

An Israeli defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to make the information public, said it appeared the military used 120-mm shells, among the largest mortar rounds.

U.N. officials demanded an investigation of the shelling. The carnage, which included 55 wounded, added to a surging civilian toll and drew mounting international pressure for Israel to end the offensive against Hamas.

At a news conference in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the truce proposal offered by him and French President Nicolas Sarkozy envisioned an immediate end to combat, so humanitarian supplies can safely enter Gaza.

Mubarak said the plan also calls for an urgent meeting between Israel and the Palestinians to discuss ways to resolve the conflict and provide necessary guarantees to ensure fighting doesn’t erupt again.

There was no indication of the plan’s chances. Sarkozy said at the news conference that he saw it as a “small hope” for ending the Gaza violence.

Sarkozy said he had spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to inform him of the initiative and was awaiting a response. In Jerusalem, Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, told AP: “We are holding off comments on that for the time being.”

At U.N. headquarters, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the proposal. “I express my support for the plan set in motion today by President Mubarak and President Sarkozy,” said Abbas, who was in New York for a Security Council meeting on the Gaza crisis.

Israeli officials have said any cease-fire agreement must prevent further rocket attacks by Gaza militants and put in place measures to prevent the smuggling of missile and other weapons into the small Palestinian territory.

Rice told the Security Council meeting that the U.S. understood the growing desire for a cease-fire and commended the initiative. But she added that any solution must address Israel’s security.

“There must be a solution this time that does not allow Hamas to use Gaza as a launching pad against Israeli cities. It has to be a solution that does not allow the rearmament of Hamas, and it must be a solution that finds a way to open (border) crossings so that Palestinians in Gaza can have a normal life,” she said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Israeli bombardment of U.N. facilities in Gaza “totally unacceptable.” Israel’s shells have fallen around three schools, including the girls school hit Tuesday, and a health center for Palestinian refugees.

Ban added that it was “equally unacceptable” for militants to take actions that endanger Palestinian civilians, referring to the practice of militants making attacks from residential areas.

In Gaza, U.N. official Christopher Gunness hoped an investigation would show whether militants were using U.N. schools for weapons or activities. “It is just not in our interests to have militants, whether in war or peace, in our installations,” he said in a statement.

Some 15,000 Palestinians have packed the U.N.’s 23 Gaza schools because their homes were destroyed or to flee the violence. The U.N. provided the Israeli military with GPS coordinates for all of them.

The three mortar shells that crashed down on the perimeter of the U.N. school struck at midafternoon, when many people in the densely populated camp were outside getting some fresh air, thinking an area around a school was safe.

Images recorded by a cameraman from AP Television News showed crowds fleeing the scene, pavements smeared with blood and battered bodies being carried off by medics and bystanders. A youth who limped away was helped along by several others. Sandals lay scattered on the pavement by a pockmarked wall.

“There’s nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized,” said John Ging, head of Gaza operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Two residents who spoke to an AP reporter by phone said the two brothers were known to be low-level Hamas militants. They said a group of militants _ one of them said four _ were firing mortar shells from near the school.

An Israeli shell targeted the men but missed and they fled, the witnesses said. Then another three shells landed nearby, exploding among civilians, they said.

An Israeli military statement said it received intelligence that the dead at the girls school included Hamas operatives, among them members of a rocket-launching squad. It identified two of them as Imad Abu Askar and Hassan Abu Askar.

A total of 71 Palestinians were killed Tuesday _ with just two confirmed as militants, Gaza health officials said. An Israeli infant was wounded by one of about two dozen rockets fired into southern Israel by Gaza militants.