Senior Israeli cabinet ministers met late Tuesday to consider a 48-hour ceasefire with militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, according to reports quoting Israeli officials, as foreign powers increased pressure on both sides to halt the four-day conflict.
Details of the meeting emerged after foreign powers increased pressure on both sides to halt the conflict that Palestinian officials say has killed at least 384 people since Saturday. Four Israelis have been killed by Palestian rocket attacks.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed the proposal floated by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, as well as other possible next steps with his foreign and defence ministers during the meeting, the officials told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to make the information public.
Any offer of ceasing air operations would be coupled with a threat to send in ground troops if the rocket fire continues, the officials said.
During the meeting, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak also asked for cabinet approval to call an additional 2,500 military reservists on top of the call-up of 6,500 reservists approved earlier in the week, the officials said.
Olmert's office issued a statement early Wednesday saying no details of the discussion would be made public because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.
The meeting came after Israeli air strikes and Palestinian rocket attacks continued on Tuesday, while thousands of Israeli soldiers waited along the border with the coastal territory, raising fears of an impending ground offensive.
Earlier Tuesday, Olmert warned the aerial phase of the operation is "the first of several" phases of attack that have been approved.
"The Gaza offensive has begun and will not end … until our goals are reached. We are continuing according to the plan," Olmert said in a briefing statement to Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Ahead of Tuesday's cabinet meeting, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev played down the idea of a truce, saying the government doesn't want to give Hamas the opportunity to regroup.
Quartet calls for 'immediate' ceasefire
Earlier in the day, a United Nations official said the quartet of Mideast negotiators — the United States, Russia, UN and European Union — called for an "immediate ceasefire that would be fully respected."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana issued the declaration during a conference call, said UN spokeswoman Marie Okabe.
Hamas appeared to reject the French truce proposal.
"What is required at this time is an Arab and international effort to stop the [Israeli] aggression and open the [border] crossings," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told reporters.
French officials have denied Israeli media reports that President Nicolas Sarkozy will travel to Jerusalem on Monday for peace talks. However, they confirmed Sarkozy will meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday in Paris.
Air strikes, rocket attacks continue
Israel began its air strike campaign less than a week after the expiration of a six-month truce with Hamas, during which the number of rocket attacks launched from Gaza abated, but did not cease entirely.
Bombs dropped by Israeli aircraft on Tuesday morning destroyed five Hamas government buildings in a Gaza City complex. Rescue workers reported that about 10 people were killed and 40 people were injured during the attack.
On Tuesday night, Palestinian rocket crews expanded the range of their attacks by firing at least two rockets at Beersheba, the largest Israeli city in the Negev desert, according to Israeli media reports.
The Jerusalem Post reported that one of the missiles struck and damaged a kindergarten in the city of 187,000, but there were no reports of injuries. It marked the first time that Beersheba, some 45 kilometres from the Israel-Gaza border, was hit by rocket fire.
The Israeli military said later it successfully struck the group that launched the rockets.
Earlier in the day, Palestinian rockets landed near the Israeli towns of Kiryat Malachi and Rahat, areas that hadn't been attacked earlier. No casualties were reported.
In a statement released by Hamas, it said that 42 homemade rockets, 17 long-range rockets and six mortar shells had been fired at Israel.
A UN agency said 62 Palestinians killed since Saturday were civilians and not members of Hamas.
Barak has defended the government's actions, saying the goal of the operation is to stop Hamas from launching rocket attacks at Israel's civilian population. He said the offensive will be "extended and deepened as we find necessary."
Israeli military officials believe the air campaign has destroyed one-third of the Hamas rocket arsenal, Israeli media reported.
Bush calls Palestinian leaders
As the missiles and rockets continued to fly, foreign powers launched a series of diplomatic moves to end the conflict.
U.S. President George W. Bush spoke about the situation in Gaza on Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayed, as well as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
"Both these sides know how to end this. Hamas stops firing rockets and Israel will not see a need to protect its people from rocket attacks," Johndroe said during a news conference in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is on holiday at his ranch.
Johndroe said Washington continues to urge Israel to avoid civilian casualties, and warned that Hamas may be inflating the death toll in Gaza.
"Let's be careful in assessing these numbers. Hamas has its tentacles throughout Gaza and we see it manifested through rocket and mortar attacks," he said.
Navy rams aid boat
Washington on Tuesday offered $85 million US to a UN agency giving aid to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The money will pay for food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies, the U.S. State Department said in a news release.
A Jordanian diplomat said 21 Jordanian army doctors and four field hospitals would be allowed to enter Wednesday, though Israeli officials did not immediately confirm that.
In another development, Israel's navy clashed with a small boat said to be carrying aid to Gaza on Tuesday.
Alleged pro-Palestinian activists aboard the boat, members of a group called the Free Gaza Movement, said they were carrying about three tonnes of medical aid to the region, a passenger told Reuters.
There were 16 people aboard from Europe and North America.
The vessel was rammed by the naval ship when it did not respond to radio contact while about 130 kilometres off the Gaza coast, said Israel's Foreign Ministry. The navy escorted the boat back to Cypriot territorial waters.
An Israeli blockade of Gaza has kept all but essential goods from entering the coastal territory. Israel agreed to allow 100 trucks of humanitarian aid and food into Gaza on Tuesday, as well as five ambulances from Turkey, defence officials said.
Egypt has allowed some trucks carrying aid to enter Gaza.
A senior United Nations official said the blockade by Israel has meant that supplies of food and medicine in the territory are dangerously low.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Tuesday his country will not fully open its crossing into the Gaza Strip unless Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority is in control of the border post.
Since Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, after 38 years of full military occupation, Israeli forces have repeatedly returned to the territory to hunt militants. However, Israel has shied away from retaking the entire strip, for fear of getting bogged down in urban warfare.
Military experts said Israel would need at least 10,000 soldiers for a full-scale invasion.
Both Israel and Hamas have drawn international criticism for their attacks, with Arab countries generally condemning Israel, and the United States holding Hamas responsible for a broken ceasefire and renewed violence.