Israel mulls truce proposals as jets pound Gaza

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Israel mulled proposals for a truce to its Gaza offensive on Wednesday but ruled out any temporary halts, as jets pounded Hamas targets for a fifth day and the Islamists pummelled Israel with rockets.

Amid mushrooming protests around the globe, the world’s top diplomats scrambled to find a way to end one of Israel’s deadliest-ever offensives on Gaza that has so far killed at least 390 Palestinians.

The Israeli security Cabinet convened in Tel Aviv to consider international proposals of a truce, with a senior government official telling Agence France-Presse the Jewish state would not agree to a French offer of a 48-hour lull.

“The proposition by the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner for a unilateral temporary ceasefire is not useful as it is evident that Hamas will not stop firing rockets against Israel,” said the official on condition of anonymity.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that the Jewish state would only consider a permanent halt to its operation under the condition that Hamas stops firing rockets and acquiring arms.

“There is a dialogue … aiming to reach a serious deal for a permanent ceasefire under certain conditions,” Yigal Palmor said.

“In order for this truce to be realistic, we need guarantees and conditions. Hamas must stop its rocket fire and acquiring arms. These are indispensable conditions if a permanent truce is to be seriously considered,” he said.

Hamas blasted international truce proposals as unbalanced, with spokesperson Fawzi Barhum saying they “put the executioner and the victim on equal footing”.

“All Arab and international intervention must focus on stopping the aggression, lifting the blockade and opening all border crossings,” he said.

Israel has warned that what Defence Minister Ehud Barak has called an “all-out war” on Hamas could last for weeks and has for days massed tanks and personnel on the border of the territory, warning of a ground incursion.

“Our ground forces are still deployed around the Gaza Strip and are ready to go in if given the order,” an army spokesperson said on Wednesday.

Israel also gave a green light for the call-up of 2 500 reservists, in addition to the more than 6 500 that were authorised earlier in the week, a Defence Ministry spokesperson said on Tuesday.

On the ground, Israeli jets continued to hammer Hamas targets throughout Gaza, carrying out more than 35 strikes overnight, targeting government offices, weapon storage facilities and contraband tunnels, the army said.

Since being launched on Saturday, the Israeli offensive has killed at least 390 people, including 42 children, according to Gaza medics.

At least 25% of those killed have been civilians, the United Nations said.

But the massive Israeli offensive has failed to stop the rocket fire, with militants firing more than 20 rockets alone on Wednesday morning, causing damage and light wounds.

Since late on Tuesday, Hamas’s armed wing sent five rockets slamming around the desert town of Beersheva, about 40km from the Gaza border — the deepest its projectiles have reached into Israel yet.

Hamas has remained defiant in the face of the Israeli onslaught, vowing to reach ever-deeper into Israel with its rockets.

Since the start of the Israeli offensive, Gaza militants have fired more than 250 rockets into Israel, killing three civilians and one soldier and wounding several dozen people.

Hamas has also threatened to carry out suicide attacks inside Israel for the first time since January 2005.

As protests were held in countries from the United States to Iran, diplomatic efforts gathered pace to stop the offensive.

US President George Bush spoke with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to discuss a “sustainable ceasefire”; the European Union called for a “permanent” truce; and the Middle East Quartet called for “an immediate ceasefire that would be fully respected.”

The bombardment has raised concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, a tiny, aid-dependent territory of 1,5-million that Israel has virtually sealed off since Hamas seized power in June 2007.

Israel opened one of its crossings into Gaza again on Wednesday, allowing more than 100 truckloads of goods to pass, the army said. At total of 179 truckloads and 10 ambulances have been delivered since the start of the Gaza bombardment, it said. — AFP

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