GAZA // Israeli officials have said they are not interested in a truce with Hamas as military plans pounded Gaza for the fourth day and the Palestinian death toll rose to more than 360. Israel made it clear yesterday the offensive was just beginning, even as the UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged world leaders to work urgently to end the "unacceptable" violence. Palestinian militants responded to Israeli air strikes with deadly rocket and mortar fire that has so far killed four Israelis.
The infrastructure minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Israel was not interested in restoring a truce with Hamas. "There is no reason that we would accept a ceasefire at this stage," he said. "If there is a ceasefire, that will allow Hamas to regain strength, recover from the shock and prepare an even stronger attack against Israel," he said. Israel and Hamas observed a tenuous Egyptian-brokered truce in and around Gaza for the six months to Dec 19. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the bombardment of Hamas targets in Gaza so far was "the first of several stages" approved by the Jewish state's security cabinet. The blitz that began on Saturday was "the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet," Olmert told President Shimon Peres in a briefing, according to the latter's spokeswoman Ayelet Frisch. The Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, who has threatened to launch ground incursions alongside the aerial blitz, said Israel is in "an all-out war with Hamas and its proxies". Mr Barak said if militant rocket attacks do not stop, "Israel will have recourse to every means and all legal actions at its disposal to see to it that the enemy halts its illegal aggression." With Israeli tanks just metres away from Gaza, the army decreed the border area a closed military zone - a move that in the past has been followed by ground operations.
At least 57 Palestinian civilians, including 21 children, have been killed in the Israeli bombardment, a UN spokesman said. Israeli aircraft carried out dozens of air strikes under the cover of darkness early today, targeting Hamas ministry and security buildings, Hamas sources and witnesses said. The attacks completely destroying the Hamas foreign and finance ministry buildings along with nearby homes, and set off fires, witnesses said.
Since the onslaught began on Saturday, Gaza militants have fired more than 250 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel, killing four people and wounding two dozen more. As the fighting continued the White House signalled strong support for Israel. "The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "They are taking the steps that they feel are necessary to deal with the terrorist threat."
At the United Nations, Mr Ban said he was "deeply alarmed by the current escalation of violence in and around Gaza. This is unacceptable. "Both Israel and Hamas must halt their acts of violence and...a ceasefire must be declared immediately." He chided leaders, saying: "I think regional and international partners have not done enough. They should do more." EU foreign ministers were set to meet in Paris today to discuss how they can work to help ease the Gaza crisis, the French foreign ministry said.
There was also growing concern about the humanitarian situation in the aid-dependent territory of 1.5 million which Israel has virtually sealed off since Hamas seized power in June 2007. "We ask all parties involved to allow food and medical supplies to reach the people there," the White House spokesman said. But anger in the Muslim world is spiralling. Turkey announced it had suspended brokering preparatory peace negotiations between Syria and Israel because of the air assault as protests intensified worldwide.
Parliament in Jordan - one of two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel - demanded the government "reconsider" relations with the Jewish state. *AFP