Israeli ground forces gather at the border while Israeli officials meet to consider a French proposal for a 48-hour truce.
Israel calls assault 'first of several stages'
Israel on Tuesday mulled a proposed 48-hour truce as world leaders stepped up calls for an end to the violence and warplanes pummelled Hamas targets in the battered Gaza Strip for a fourth day. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was meeting his foreign and defence ministers to consider a French proposal for a 48-hour truce in Gaza, a senior official said. And US President George W Bush spoke with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas to discuss a "sustainable ceasefire." "They agreed that for any ceasefire to be effective, it must be respected, particularly by Hamas," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters in Crawford, Texas. But throughout the day, Israeli officials insisted the armed forces would press on with the offensive, which has sparked Muslim outrage and protests worldwide. "What we want is not a ceasefire but a stop to terrorism," said President Shimon Peres. Accompanying Peres on a tour of the Israeli High Command headquarters, armed forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi said: "It is our intention to continue this operation in an urgent manner to improve the security situation for the residents of the south." Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer warned a ceasefire would allow Hamas "to regain strength, recover from the shock and prepare an even stronger attack against Israel." "There is no reason that we would accept a ceasefire at this stage," he told AFP. With tanks and troops massed on the Gaza border, the Israeli military said ground forces are ready to join what politicians have warned would be a prolonged offensive. Olmert said the bombardment so far was "the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet," while deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai warned the offensive ? one of Israel's deadliest against Gaza ? could turn into "weeks of combat." More than 370 Palestinians have been killed since the Israeli air onslaught against Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers began Saturday, shortly after a rocky, six-month truce expired. According to UN figures, at least 64 of the victims were civilians. Among those killed were two sisters, aged 4 and 11, who perished in an air strike on a rocket squad in northern Gaza on Tuesday.
Israeli warplanes smashed a Hamas government complex, security installations and the home of a top militant commander. During brief lulls between airstrikes, Gazans tentatively ventured into the streets to buy goods and collect belongings from homes they had abandoned after Israel's aerial onslaught began Saturday. The campaign has brought a new reality to southern Israel, too. Militants, battered but unbowed, have pressed on with their rocket and mortar assaults, killing three Israeli civilians and a soldier and bringing a widening circle of targets into their sights with an arsenal of mightier weapons.
The military estimated that one-tenth of Israel's population of 7 million are now within rocket range, with the battles shifting closer to Israel's heartland. Of the four Israelis killed since the operation began Saturday, all but one were in areas that had not suffered fatalities before. On Tuesday, a Bedouin town became one of the new targets. By midafternoon, gunmen had launched about a dozen rockets and mortars, down from 80 a day earlier, the Israeli military said. But the number of firings have fluctuated sharply throughout the day, and that number could dramatically rise by day's end.
In the 72 hours since the offensive began, militants have fired off more than 250 rockets and mortars all told, they added. "Zionists, wait for more from the resistance," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said in a text message to reporters, referring to militants' armed struggle against Israel. Warplanes launched their bruising offensive after Hamas defied Israel's warnings that it would not stand for the rocket barrages on southern Israel that resumed nearly two months ago, toward the end of a recently expired truce. Fires blazed across the Gaza Strip's main city, Gaza City, where five government buildings were badly damaged in air attacks Tuesday.
Rescue workers said 40 people were injured when warplanes dropped more than a dozen bombs on the government compound. It wasn't clear whether anyone was buried under the debris. Residents of nearby buildings had fled the area, anticipating the compound would be hit. During lulls between air strikes Tuesday, some of them returned to retrieve furniture and other belongings from battered apartments.
Elsewhere, Gazans took advantage of the few minutes of calm to line up for bread and stock up on dwindling supplies of food. Residents reported food shortages in some areas. Vendors were afraid to open their shops and distributors refused to ship new supplies, fearing for their safety on Gaza's roads. Farmers stayed home. Rasha Khaldeh, 22, from the central Gaza town of Deir al-Balah, said she didn't dare to go any further than down the block to look for food. "We just don't know what they are going to shell next. It's not safe."
Israel's air force initially hammered security facilities, then broadened to weapons-making and storage facilities, the homes of militant field operatives, and government buildings that are the symbols of Hamas' power. The initial wave of airstrikes took Gaza by surprise, targeting militants and Hamas security forces at key installations, often located in the midst of tiny Gaza's densely populated towns and cities. But the government buildings targeted later were empty, as Gazans became fearful of venturing out into the streets.
For Ziad Koraz, whose nearby home was damaged in the attack on the government compound Tuesday, violence gratuitously put Gaza civilians at risk. "More than 17 missiles were directed at an empty government compound, without regard for civilians who lived nearby," Koraz said. "If someone committed a crime, they should go after him, not after an entire nation." The offensive comes on top of an Israeli blockade of Gaza that has largely kept all but essential goods from entering the coastal territory since Hamas violently seized control June 2007 from forces loyal to the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Egypt, which has been blockading Gaza from its southern end, has come under pressure from the rest of the Arab world to reopen its border with the territory because of the Israeli campaign. Egypt has pried open the border to let in some of Gaza's wounded and to allow some humanitarian supplies to enter the territory. But Egyptian President Hosni Muabarak said in a televised speech Tuesday that his country would not throw open the crossing unless Abbas regains control of the border post.
Mubarak has been rattled by the presence of a neighbouring Islamic ministate in Gaza, fearing it would fuel more Islamic dissidence in Egypt. Abbas has been in peace talks with Israel over the past year. While there have been no signs of an imminent deal, Israel has made it clear that no future accord could be implemented as long as Hamas is in power in Gaza. Israel has allowed a trickle of aid through its cargo crossings with Gaza despite the military campaign, agreeing to allow 100 lorries in on Tuesday, defence officials said. Jordan, the Red Cross and the World Health Organization were also preparing to send medical supplies. Israel's navy on Tuesday turned back a boat of pro-Palestinian protesters who had hoped to enter Gaza to demonstrate against the Israeli blockade.
The Israeli side of the border area was declared a closed military zone on Monday, drawing a thick fog over operations in the area. But with thousands of ground troops, backed by tanks and artillery, massed on the border, and the air force knocking off target after target, the big question looming over the operation was whether it would expand to include a land invasion. Israeli security officials weren't tipping their hands, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated that the operation would "expand as needed ... to restore tranquillity to (Israel's) south and deliver a blow to Hamas so the rocket fire and other operations against the citizens and soldiers of Israel stop."
Short of reoccupying Gaza, however, it was unlikely any amount of Israeli firepower could permanently stop rocket attacks. Past operations all failed to do so. During the six-month truce that expired Dec 19, gunmen fired 360 rockets and mortars, the vast majority in the agreement's waning weeks, the military said. In the year before it took hold, more than 4,300 projectiles were fired, it added. Militants operating under the current barrage of Israeli bombs and missiles have demonstrated with deadly effect that larger cities farther inside Israel have become alarmingly vulnerable. On Monday, a missile crashed into a bus stop in Ashdod, 37 kilometres from Gaza and only 40 kilometres from Israel's Tel Aviv heartland. Ashdod, home to 200,000 people, is the largest city in southern Israel. Onlookers came to gawk at the bus stop that on Monday became the site of the city's first fatal attack. They ignored a police officer's order, delivered by loudspeaker, to leave the area because of a rocket threat. The stop was pockmarked by shrapnel, and windows in an apartment building across the street were shattered. "It's very scary," said Yaacov Pardida, 55, "I never imagined that this could happen, that they could reach us here."