Israel Presses on With Gaza Strikes

Palestinian militants in Gaza and Israeli forces continue their exchange of firepower, as the death toll in the latest clash nears 400 people. Video by AP
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

JERUSALEM, Dec. 31 -- Facing growing international pressure, Israel's top leaders met late into the night Tuesday to consider a cease-fire proposal that would require Hamas to halt its rocket attacks and would temporarily pause Israel's air assault on the Gaza Strip after four days of attacks.

The discussion marked the first time since the Israeli offensive began Saturday that Israel has publicly weighed suspending its attacks. But Israeli officials gave no indication after the meeting ended whether they plan to pursue a truce. Hamas, meanwhile, vowed to continue firing rockets.

Mark Regev, spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, cast doubt on the idea of a temporary truce, saying that a "band-aid solution will only explode in our faces a month or two months from now." And Israeli officials said privately after the meeting that the leaders want Hamas to agree to halt the rocket fire before Israel moves on any truce proposal.

The Israeli military said Hamas and its allies fired approximately 40 rockets and mortar shells Tuesday. Rockets touched down in Beersheba, a city in the Negev desert about 25 miles from Gaza, marking the farthest strike yet. There were no major injuries in Israel from the fighting. Israeli jets and helicopters conducted 70 strikes, targeting smugglers' tunnels and weapons facilities. Israeli airstrikes on Tuesday and early Wednesday flattened buildings across the Gaza Strip that the military said were associated with Hamas. Israel also continued to mass forces along the border with Gaza in preparation for a possible ground offensive.

The cease-fire was proposed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Israeli officials said, and is intended to last 48 hours. Humanitarian organizations say a period of calm is needed to get essential supplies into the territory, where 1.5 million Palestinians are running short of food, fuel and medicine.

The French proposal came as part of a broader push by the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators -- the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- to halt the bloodshed after the deaths of at least 370 Palestinians and four Israelis since Saturday.

"There must be an unconditional halt to rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel and an end to Israeli military action," the E.U. said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Kouchner called Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak twice Tuesday to discuss the proposal, Israeli officials said. Barak, Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni discussed the idea of a truce Tuesday night in a meeting that did not break up until about midnight.

"If a real proposal with credibility and guarantees is submitted to us, we will give it a very serious examination," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

Israeli military officials have said they intend to break either Hamas's capacity or its will to fire rockets, thousands of which have sailed from Gaza into Israel in recent years. Since Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlements from Gaza in 2005, rockets launched from the strip into Israel have killed 13 civilians, according to the Israeli government.

Earlier Tuesday, Israeli officials had given no indication that they were considering a truce. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit told Israel Radio that "there is no room for a cease-fire" and added, "The Israeli army must not stop the operation before breaking the will of the Palestinians, of Hamas, to continue to fire at Israel."

An Israeli military spokesman, Maj. Peter Lerner, said a cease-fire is unnecessary because Israel is already allowing enough aid into the strip. On Tuesday, Lerner said, Israel allowed 93 trucks into Gaza -- 50 with humanitarian supplies and the rest with commercial goods. The humanitarian shipments included flour, rice, sugar, lentils and medication -- all donated by aid groups.

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