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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Israel rebuffs call for Gaza truce

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Israel on Wednesday rejected calls for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and stepped up preparations for a possible ground offensive after Hamas's long-range rockets hit another major population center.

Israeli aircraft carried out more than 10 air strikes in sharply reduced operations in rainy weather that allowed many Gaza residents to venture out to shop for food for the first time since the start of Israel's five-day-old offensive.

The poor weather -- "a truce imposed by God" as one Palestinian put it -- could delay any push by Israeli tanks into the territory. Forecasters predicted several days of clear skies starting late on Thursday.

U.S. President George W. Bush spoke by phone to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert but did not discuss a timetable for halting Israeli strikes, the White House said. Bush put the onus on Hamas to stop firing rockets as a first step to a truce.

Foreign pressure has grown on both sides to end hostilities, but Israel brushed aside as "unrealistic" a French proposal for a 48-hour truce that would allow in more humanitarian aid for Gaza's 1.5 million residents.

"If conditions will ripen and we think there will be a diplomatic solution that will ensure a better security reality in the south, we will consider it. But at the moment, it's not there," an aide quoted Olmert as saying.

"We didn't start this operation just to end it with rocket fire continuing as it did before it began," Olmert said, according to the aide. "Imagine if we declare a unilateral ceasefire and a few days later rockets fall on (the town of) Ashkelon. What will that do to Israel's deterrence?"

Olmert made the remarks -- which did not rule out a ceasefire in the future -- to his security cabinet.

Hamas, for its part, said it was prepared to study proposals for a ceasefire so long as it "will bring an immediate cessation to the aggression and lift the siege entirely," senior official Ayman Taha said, referring to Israel's blockade of the Hamas-ruled coastal territory.

With Palestinians increasingly enraged over the offensive, President Mahmoud Abbas called for the fighting to be stopped "immediately and without any conditions" and said Israel was "fully responsible" for the carnage. Abbas will ask the U.N. Security Council to act, aides said.

Diplomats said the deadliest conflict in the Gaza Strip in four decades appeared close to a tipping point after four days of air strikes that have killed 393 Palestinians, at least a quarter of whom, U.N. figures showed, were civilians.

Along the heavily-fortified border fence, Israeli tank crews prepared for battle while Islamist militants, hiding as little as a few hundred yards (meters) away, laid land mines and other booby traps should a ground war break out.

Inside Gaza, many residents ventured outside their homes to stock up on supplies, taking advantage of a lull in Israeli air strikes that have turned Hamas government buildings into piles of rubble.

Some children played happily in the rain, as one parent remarked they were finally able to run free after what he called days of "house arrest."

Despite calls by European and Arab powers for an end to the violence, public anger in Israel over the widening of the rocket attacks to include Beersheba, 40 km (24 miles) from Gaza, could prompt the government to hit Hamas even harder.

Israeli officials said they were open to amendments to the French proposal and alternatives being put forward by international parties.

Cabinet ministers, however, approved the mobilization of 2,500 army reservists, expanding on an earlier call-up of 6,500 soldiers for the garrison on the Gaza border, and officials said a ground offensive was an option.


Israel said it was doing its part to let humanitarian supplies into Gaza despite the rocket fire. Ninety-three truckloads of food, medicine and blood for hospitals entered on Wednesday, defense official Peter Lerner said.

Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo to seek a common position in response to the Israeli attacks, but the Arab world is deeply divided in its attitude toward Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip last year after fighting a brief civil war with the secular Fatah faction loyal to Western-backed Abbas.

The diplomatic moves coincided with an escalation in Hamas rocket fire deeper inside Israel.

At least four of the longer-range Grad rockets hit Beersheba, the city Israel calls the capital of the Negev, its southern region. One struck a school that was empty. Municipal authorities had canceled classes after rockets landed in Beersheba on Tuesday evening for the first time.

Other long-range rockets hit the southern coastal city of Ashkelon. Dozens of short-range rockets pelted border towns.

Israel's air strikes on Wednesday targeted smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt frontier and Hamas government offices in Gaza City. Palestinian medics said four people -- two militants, a doctor and a paramedic -- were killed.

Food supplies in Gaza were running low and power cuts were affecting much of the territory. Hospitals were struggling to cope with the high number of casualties from the offensive.

Medical officials revised the number of wounded to 1,650 after figures arrived from medical centers that had not reported their casualty statistics earlier. Three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed by rockets.

Olmert's centrist government launched the operation six weeks before a February 10 election that opinion polls predict the opposition right-wing Likud party will win, with the goal of halting rocket attacks by militants in Gaza.

The current violence erupted after a six-month ceasefire brokered by Egypt expired on December 19 and Hamas intensified rocket attacks from the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.

France said it would host Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday and an Israeli official said French President Nicolas Sarkozy planned to visit Jerusalem next Monday.

(Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Ari Rabinovitch and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Wafa Amr and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, James Mackenzie in Paris and Alaa Shahine in Cairo; Writing by Adam Entous and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Charles Dick)

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