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.
Israel has not allowed foreign reporters into Gaza since its operation began Saturday.
"We have got to get a commitment from Hamas that they would respect any cease-fire and make it lasting and durable," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "Until Israel can get that assurance from Hamas, then you will not have a cease-fire that is worth the paper it's written on."
Johndroe said President Bush had spoken Tuesday morning with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, to discuss efforts to restore a cease-fire. Abbas and Fayyad lead the Palestinian government in the West Bank, which does not control Gaza. Hamas ousted backers of the rival Fatah party from Gaza in June 2007, after winning legislative elections in 2006.
"They agreed that for any cease-fire to be effective, it must be respected, particularly by Hamas," Johndroe said at a news conference in Crawford, Tex., where Bush is visiting his family ranch.
Bush also spoke to Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, and thanked him for his diplomatic pressure on Hamas.
Egypt has been critical of the Islamist movement, blaming it for the collapse of the shaky cease-fire that had held until mid-December. That deal, which was mediated by Egyptian officials, lasted for six months, as planned, and succeeded in reducing levels of violence. But it ended in mutual recrimination: Hamas has accused Israel of failing to open border crossings as promised and of continuing to carry out occasional military operations against targets in Gaza. Israel has said that Hamas was unable to stop all rocket fire from the strip and that Hamas had no interest in continuing the truce beyond its expiration date.
Special correspondents Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza City and Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem and staff writer Nelson Hernandez in Crawford contributed to this report.