Birds fly over the central Gaza Strip as the sun sets, as seen from a hill at… (Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated…)
GAZA CITY -- Hopes rose Tuesday for a halt to hostilities after seven days of devastating fighting between Israel and Hamas, with officials from the militant group predicting a cease-fire would take effect at midnight.
But as the evening wore on, Israeli and Egyptian officials began downplaying expectations, warning that no deal had been signed.
According to one senior Hamas official, the parties reached a “major breakthrough” Tuesday when Israel agreed to halt attacks against the Gaza Strip, stop targeted killings of Hamas leaders and ease border restrictions.
TIMELINE: Israel-Gaza conflict
Israel is seeking an end to the rocket fire into its territory by Gaza militants and assurances – backed up by Egypt and the international community – that Hamas won’t be allowed to rebuild the weapons caches that Israel has destroyed.
Israeli officials have not commented on the talks, which are being conducted in Cairo through Turkish and Egyptian intermediaries since Israel and Hamas don’t formally recognize one another.
All sides hinted that a deal might be reached Wednesday. Arab League leaders and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have sought to help negotiate the deal; President Obama also sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the region from Cambodia.
PHOTOS: Israel-Gaza violence
By sending Clinton, "we are all hoping for a de-escalation, we are all hoping for a restoration of calm, we’re all hoping to open space for deeper, broader conversations," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Tuesday in Washington.
The death toll mounted to more than 130 Palestinians and five Israelis late Tuesday as airstrikes and rocket attacks continued, according to news reports. Some observers have questioned in recent days whether the negotiations in Egypt could be spurring an uptick in violence, with each side trying to gain an edge or intimidate the other ahead of the anticipated truce.
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Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.