Pressure builds for Gaza ceasefire

Israel and Hamas urged to agree temporary truce as death toll nears 400.

    Israel has said that there will be no ceasefire until Palestinian fighters stop rocket attacks [AFP]

    On the ground there was little sign of an end to hostilities, with Israeli jets pounding Gaza for a fifth day, adding to the misery of civilians trapped in the densely-populated strip, much of which is without power and with food supplies running dangerously low.

    Early on Wednesday a Palestinian medic was killed when his ambulance was hit by an Israeli missile.

    Witnesses reported other missiles hitting Hamas positions in Gaza city as well as the network of tunnels used for smuggling both basic supplies and weapons under the Gaza-Egypt border.

    Ceasefire calls

    Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, made two telephone calls to Ehud Barak, the defence minister, on Tuesday appealing to him to consider a truce to allow time for humanitarian relief supplies to be delivered, two senior officials in Barak's office said.

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    Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, reportedly discussed the French proposal with his foreign and defence ministers on Tuesday night, but his office said details of the meeting would not be released.
      
    The discussions focused on "diplomatic, military and operational aspects of Israel's next steps," his office said.

    Al Jazeera's Alan Fisher, reporting from the Israeli-Gaza border, said there was a real possiblity the truce could be approved when the Israeli cabinet meets on Wednesday.

    "They will decide whether or not Hamas has been weakened enough to allow this to go ahead, he said.

    "It will play well with the international community if Israel does stop the violence, and if Hamas does break the ceasefire then Israel can launch a ground war saying 'we tried to give peace a chance but Hamas didn't want it.'"

    Israel has, so far, said it will refuse to enter into a new ceasefire with Hamas until rocket and mortar attacks by Palestinian fighters were halted.

    "What we want is not a ceasefire but a stop to terrorism," Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, said.

    Four Israeli citizens have been killed in such attacks since the Israeli offensive began on Saturday.

    Gaza blockade

    Mushir Masri, a Hamas spokesman, said any halt to attacks on southern Israel would require an end to Israel's crippling blockade of the Gaza Strip.

    "If they halt the aggression and the blockade, then Hamas will study these suggestions," he said.

    Israel has maintained a blockade of the Gaza Strip since Hamas took full control in 2007, restricting supplies of basic neccesities, fuel and medicine.

    The armed wing of the Palestinian movement warned that it would step up rocket attacks against Israel if the bombardment was not ended.

    "We tell the leaders of the enemy - if you continue with your assault, we will hit with our rockets further than the cities we have hit so far," a masked spokesman for Izz-e-din al-Qassam Brigades said in a televised statement.

    "If you think that Hamas and al-Qassam will be crushed, we will rise up from the rubble," the spokesman, named as Abu Obaida, said.

    Tuesday saw a barrage of more than 40 rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, many striking deeper than before.

    The Hamas statement came amid warnings from Israel that the onslaught on the Gaza Strip could last for "weeks".

    'Breaking' Hamas

    Israel's interior minister said there would be no let up until the threat of Palestinian rockets attacks from the Gaza Strip had been removed.

    "There is no room for a ceasefire," Meir Sheetrit told reporters.

    He said that the Israeli military would not stop its operations "before breaking the will of Palestinians, of Hamas, to continue to fire at Israel."

    Tanks and troops are massed on the edge of the Gaza Strip [AFP]
    In the US, the Bush administration continued to give its tacit backing to the Israeli raids, saying it was up to Hamas to give sufficient assurances that any ceasefire would hold.

    "We have got to get a commitment from Hamas that they would respect any ceasefire and make it lasting and durable," Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, told reporters.

    "So until we can get that assurance - not the United States, but until Israel can get that assurance from Hamas - then we're not going to have a ceasefire that is worth the paper it's written on."

    He added that all sides wanted to see an end to the violence, "but that first starts with Hamas ceasing its rocket attacks into Israel."

    Israel's military meanwhile has been massing infantry and armoured forces along the border with Gaza, increasing speculation that a ground invasion is planned.

    Arab foreign ministers were due to meet in Cairo on Wednesday to discuss calling an emergency region-wide summit on the crisis.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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