Israel, under international pressure, is considering a 48-hour halt to its punishing four-day air campaign on Hamas targets in Gaza to see if Palestinian militants will stop their rocket attacks on southern Israel, Israeli officials said.
Any offer would be coupled with a threat to send in ground troops if the rocket fire continues.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed the proposal – floated by France’s foreign minister – and other possible next steps with his foreign and defence ministers, Israeli officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to make the information public.
President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called leaders in the Middle East to press for a durable solution beyond any immediate truce.
And members of the Quartet of world powers trying to promote Mideast peace concluded a conference call with an appeal for an immediate cease-fire. The Quartet powers are the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
The European Union itself late yesterday also urged an immediate truce and for Israel to reopen borders to allow vital supplies to reach Gazans. The Paris statement by the 27-member bloc avoided blaming either side for the current fighting.
Last night, Israel’s leadership trio stepped up preparations for a ground offensive, conducting a telephone survey among Cabinet ministers on a plan to call up an additional 2,500 reserve soldiers, if required. Earlier this week, the Cabinet authorised a callup of 6,700 soldiers.
After the four-hour meeting, Mr Olmert’s office issued a statement saying no details of the discussion would be made public because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
But Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to release information on the meeting, said the leaders wanted Hamas to agree to stop the rocket fire before Israel considers a truce.
And even amid talk of a truce, Israeli warplanes continued to unload bombs on targets in Gaza. Powerful airstrikes caused Gaza City’s high-rise apartment buildings to sway and showered streets with broken glass and pulverised concrete. Israel’s ground forces on Gaza’s border also used artillery for the first time.
Early today, Israeli aircraft pounded smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, setting off a huge explosion in a fuel tunnel, witnesses said, as other aircraft hit Hamas positions in Gaza City. No casualties were reported.
A Palestinian medic was killed and two others wounded when an Israeli missile struck next to their ambulance during a clash east of Gaza City, Palestinians said. The Israeli military said it did not know of the incident.
Hamas kept up its rocket barrages, which have killed four Israelis since the weekend, and sent many more in running for bomb shelters – some of them in cities under threat of attack for the first time, as the range of the rockets grows.
A medium-range rocket hit the city of Beersheba for the first time ever, zooming 28 miles deep into Israel and slamming into an empty kindergarten. A second rocket landed in an open area near the desert city, Israel’s fifth-largest. The military said later it successfully struck the group that launched those rockets.
A pattern of daytime lulls and nighttime spikes in rocket fire appeared to be emerging as militants found safer launch cover in darkness.
Four days into a campaign that has killed 374 Palestinians and prompted Arab and international condemnation, a diplomatic push to end the fighting gathered pace.
In two phone calls to Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Monday and yesterday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner appealed to him to consider a truce to allow time for humanitarian relief supplies to enter the beleaguered Gaza Strip, two senior officials in Mr Barak’s office said.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was expected to travel tomorrow to Paris for talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has put his growing international stature to use in other conflict zones, most recently to help halt fighting between Russia and Georgia in August.
Israeli media reported that Mr Sarkozy would also travel to Jerusalem on Monday for talks with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
A Hamas spokesman said any halt to militant rocket and mortar fire 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,” said Mushir Masri.