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Israeli Forces Tighten Hold On Gaza City Outskirts

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. It's often said that Israelis fight their wars against the clock. They move as quickly as they can as the world increases its demands for a cease-fire. In Gaza right now, that cease-fire has yet to arrive. And Israeli forces have moved into the most densely populated parts of the Palestinian area. The death toll on the Palestinian side has now surpassed 900. Nearly half are civilians. Israel has lost 13, 10 of them soldiers. NPR's Mike Shuster has more from Jerusalem.

MIKE SHUSTER: Israel's ground troops were also active. There were numerous encounters between Israeli troops and Hamas gunmen as the Israeli military moved to tighten the encirclement of Gaza City. Television pictures from inside Gaza have shown a flood of injured people, many of them children, with hideous wounds and burns. Buildings have collapsed under the onslaught in many areas of Gaza; no one knows how many people are still buried in the rubble. United Nations officials have confirmed much of the information from the Palestinian side. Numerous U.N. officials have issued increasingly desperate calls for an end to the fighting. This is John Ging, the head of the local U.N. Relief and Works Agency, speaking in Gaza yesterday.

MONTAGNE: Here, in Israel and internationally, you have an obligation to the ordinary people. In the name of humanity and all that is civilized, we need to stop this now. More children have died today, and more will die tomorrow unless the fighting stops.

SHUSTER: Yesterday, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped into the process. Blair is the top envoy of the Middle East quartet. The quartet is a diplomatic mechanism that brings together the European Union, the United States, the United Nations and Russia. Blair's public remarks did not leave the impression that a cease-fire could be worked out soon.

MONTAGNE: I am hopeful we can put an agreement together, but it's going to have to be worked on very hard, and it's got to be credible - credible both in terms of stopping the supply of weapons into Gaza, but credible also in terms of opening up Gaza and allowing the Gazan people to get what they need from the outside world.

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SHUSTER: The key stumbling block is the border between Gaza and Egypt. This is where hundreds of tunnels have been dug over the years, permitting the smuggling of just about everything into Gaza, including weapons. They have been a major supply source since Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2006. The Israelis call this border zone the Philadelphia Corridor, and they say in any cease-fire, Israel must have confidence that the tunnels won't be reconstructed. It's a very hard problem to solve, says Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.

MONTAGNE: We must control the tunnel under the Philadelphia passage. There is no other way to stop this war. Otherwise, we have to go into Gaza and kill all the Hamas people. Egypt must cooperate with Israel and stop it on its side, you see, and we'll do our job in this side. It is difficult and complicated because Egypt doesn't want to fight the Arabs. But there is no other solution. We must find an agreement.

SHUSTER: Whether Hamas is really willing to engage in these talks is a big question. The Israelis believe the damage they've done to Hamas has caused some of the movement's leaders to give serious consideration to a cease-fire. But Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's leader in Gaza, who has been in hiding since the first week of the war, issued a statement yesterday that Hamas would consider a cease-fire only after Israel withdrew from Gaza and ended the blockade of the territory. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.