Israel Radio said on Tuesday that the army was preparing to widen ground operations in Gaza as part of an offensive it launched in the territory three days after the June 25 abduction of an Israeli soldier in a cross-border Palestinian raid.

Witnesses also reported Israeli forces entering central Gaza for the first time since the offensive began, with soldiers conducting searches in a village east of the town of Deir el Balah.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, pledged on Monday to pursue the campaign indefinitely to secure the soldier's release and halt daily rocket attacks against southern Israel.

But his Palestinian counterpart, Ismail Haniya, wrote in an article for the US Washington Post newspaper that "if Israel will not allow Palestinians to live in peace, dignity and national integrity, Israelis themselves will not be able to enjoy those same rights".

Missiles fired

In the latest actions in the Gaza Strip, Israeli aircraft fired missiles at Palestinian resistance fighters transporting and setting up rockets near the northern town of Bait Hanun, the Israeli army said.

Ismail Haniya (C): Palestinians 
committed to diplomacy and calm

Residents said one fighter was killed and two critically wounded. Several civilians were also hurt in the attacks.

More than 50 Palestinians, some 20 of them civilians, have been killed since the offensive began, Gaza residents and medics say.

On Tuesday, United Nations aid agencies complained to Israel that it was not doing enough to ease a threatened humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Western diplomats said.

The Israeli army said it has continued to permit the supply of basic foods, medical and industrial supplies to Gaza.

Wisdom and logic

In remarks at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Haniya repeated a call he made several days ago for a ceasefire and negotiations with Israel.

Israel has rejected a truce, saying Palestinian fighters must first release the abducted soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, and halt rocket attacks.

"I say to the leaders of the occupation, leaders of Israel, let the language of reason, wisdom and logic prevail," Haniya said.

"We, in the Palestinian government, are still committed to the initiative we have made and we say that political negotiations, diplomacy and calm ... are the way out of the current crisis," he said, referring to his call for a truce.

Aid received

Haniya, whose governing Hamas group advocates Israel's destruction, said in the Washington Post article published on Tuesday that "the Gaza invasion is only the latest effort to destroy the results of fair and free elections held early this year" in the occupied Palestinian territories.

"If Israel will not allow Palestinians to live in peace, dignity and national integrity, Israelis themselves will not be able to enjoy those same rights"

Ismail Haniya,
Palestinian prime minister

He accused Israel and the US, which has spearheaded a Western suspension of aid to the Palestinian Authority, of waging "economic and diplomatic warfare".

He also appealed to Americans "to give careful and well-informed thought to root causes and historical realities, in which case I think they will question why a supposedly "legitimate" state such as Israel has had to conduct decades of war against a subject refugee population without ever achieving its goals".

Western donor nations have called on Hamas to renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previous peace deals.

Hamas, which defeated the long-ruling Fatah faction of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in the January vote, has rejected the demands.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Abbas's office received $50 million from the Arab League, officials said, the largest amount of international aid to reach the Palestinians since the aid blockade.

The officials said the money bypassed Hamas and was sent directly to Abbas, but declined to say how the money would be spent.