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middle east conflict

Smoke rises following an Israeli strike on smuggling tunnels along the border between Egypt and Rafah southern Gaza Strip, Nov. 21, 2012.Eyad Baba/The Associated Press

The promise of a midnight truce in Gaza slipped away Tuesday night amid exchanges of shells and rockets, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Jerusalem to press for "de-escalation" and the first step to a durable ceasefire.

An international diplomatic push to halt Israel's week-long campaign of air strikes – by securing Hamas's guarantee that it would end rocket attacks – appeared to gain momentum, but on the ground, the fighting intensified.

Officials with Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, said they believe they are close to a deal and are awaiting Israel's answer to their offer of a truce. Israel, wary that a deal might not hold, was reportedly seeking a two-step agreement: a short period of 24 or 48 hours in which both sides agree to stop firing before a broader ceasefire is struck.

Egypt's President, Mohammed Morsi, a key mediator with Hamas, predicted earlier on Tuesday that negotiations would yield "positive results" before the day was out. Hamas officials said they expected a truce at midnight.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his country would be a "willing participant" in a ceasefire.

By late that night, however, it was clear that any ceasefire would not come before Wednesday, at the earliest.

Gaza shook with the blasts of stepped-up Israeli shelling, while rockets continued to fly across the border into Israel, including one that hit an apartment building near Tel Aviv.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shuttled from Egypt to Jerusalem, condemning Palestinian rocket attacks but urging Israel to show restraint. "Further escalation benefits no one," he said.

Ms. Clinton, who flew from Cambodia to the Middle East and met with Mr. Netayahu into the early hours of Wednesday, called for a de-escalation of hostilities to seek a lasting deal "in the days ahead." She is to meet with Mr. Morsi in Cairo Wednesday.

"The goal must be a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security and legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike," she said at a news conference with Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu said Israel would welcome a diplomatic solution – but he also held out the threat of expanded military action, saying he would take whatever action is necessary.

On the ground, however, there was little appearance of a truce, as intense shelling and rocket attacks were exchanged. The Israeli death toll rose to five with the deaths Tuesday of an Israeli soldier and a civilian contractor. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed.

In Gaza, the sounds of explosions clashed with the rumours of ceasefire.

In the hours before a halt to rocket fire was expected to be announced, Israel launched hundreds of missiles, bombs and shells against targets throughout the Gaza Strip. Hotels in a safe zone near the beach in Gaza City shook as several of the blasts landed nearby.

Naval vessels let loose a relentless barrage for nearly an hour from 7 to 8 p.m., at a time when many anticipated the announcement of a ceasefire.

The delay underlined the mistrust that makes an agreement to stop firing so elusive. Those arrangements are not simple when it comes to Israel and Hamas.

Hamas wants international guarantees that Israel won't resort to violence, including assassinations. "It is the right of the people here to live free of such violent attacks," said Fawzi Barhum, spokesman for Hamas.

For its part, Israel wants Hamas to stop building up its arsenal of missiles. It also wants a guarantee that Hamas will prevent other militant factions in Gaza from carrying out attacks on Israel. Hamas can agree to this, but enforcing it against groups such as Islamic Jihad and various Salafi jihadists is another matter.

It is Egypt's Mr. Morsi, still only five months in office and facing a delicate political balance at home, who now bears much of the burden of mediating a truce.

Both the United States and Israel have looked to Mr. Morsi, who ran as the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood's Egyptian political wing, to exert influence, and see him as key to guaranteeing that the terms of any ceasefire hold.

Mr. Morsi faces pressure from all sides, however. Mediating a truce reduces the risk that the crisis will derail his challenging domestic agenda, notably improving a troubled economy. But any uptick in violence will increase pressure from his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as everyday Egyptians, to take a tougher stand against Israel.

In Cairo, local media outlets followed news of a potential ceasefire closely well into the night. But many of the country's popular TV news talk shows also focused on domestic crises.

For the second straight day, violence broke out among protesters and security forces near Tahrir Square. The demonstration marks the one-year anniversary of a bloody, five-day clash in Cairo's Mohamed Mahmoud Street that saw more than 40 people killed.

Hundreds of protesters took to the same street again this week. Police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. The protest forced the American University in Cairo to temporarily close its Tahrir campus. But it also provided fresh evidence that, for many of those who participated in Egypt's revolution, a successful end to violence in Gaza will not end deep mistrust of the country's new government.

Mohamed Sami spent 18 days in Tahrir Square during the start of the Egyptian revolution in early 2011 and has been heavily involved with the movement since.

"Morsi was okay in this situation, but it did not change my point of view about the government of Egypt," he said.

With reports from Associated Press and Reuters

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