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Israel rebuffs calls for 48-hour truce in Gaza

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says a French proposal lacks guarantees to halt Hamas rocket attacks. As they prepare for a land invasion, officials say they are open to alternatives.

January 01, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Israel on Wednesday resisted international calls to halt its airstrikes on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, saying it would keep up pressure on the militant Palestinian group while weighing proposals for a durable cease-fire.

As Hamas hurled more than 70 rockets across the border, Israeli warplanes pounded the densely populated coastal enclave for a fifth day, killing two doctors next to their ambulance. Nine other Palestinians died Wednesday, raising the number killed in the offensive to 397.

European, U.S. and Arab leaders have been pressing for a truce, concerned about a United Nations estimate that women and children account for at least one-fifth of Gaza's dead. On Sunday, Hamas' top political leader had floated the idea of a cease-fire.

But after a divisive debate late Tuesday, Israel's leadership backed away from hints of support for a truce proposal by France and pressed ahead with the airstrikes.

With troops and tanks massed along the Gaza border for a possible ground invasion, Israel's government authorized the mobilization of 2,500 army reservists to expand an earlier call-up of 6,500 soldiers.

Undeterred by waves of punishing attacks on its arsenal, command posts, rocket-launch sites, tunnels and weapons labs, Hamas fired deep into Israel on Wednesday, bringing daily life to a near-standstill for about half a million people in the southern part of the country.

Three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed by rocket fire since Saturday; no serious casualties were reported Wednesday.

Hamas, which calls for destruction of the Jewish state, has intensified its rocket fire since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. In mid-2007, the Islamic group seized control of the impoverished territory from the secular Fatah movement with which it had shared power in a government elected the previous year.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told a meeting of his security advisors that the French proposal lacked guarantees to ensure that Hamas would stop firing rockets and would be prevented from smuggling more weapons into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt.

"If conditions ripen and provide a diplomatic solution for ensuring a much better security reality in the south, we will consider it," Olmert said, according to Israel's Ynet news website. "But we are not there yet."

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had proposed a 48-hour halt in the fighting to allow delivery of humanitarian relief to the besieged coastal strip and give time for international mediators to work out a long-term truce.

Israeli officials emphasized that they had not rejected the French plan outright and were open to amendments and alternatives being put forward by Turkey, Egypt and other parties. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was flying to Paris today to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

President Bush spoke to Olmert by phone Wednesday and voiced concern about civilian casualties in Gaza but did not discuss a timetable for halting Israeli strikes, the White House said.

The Israeli military said Wednesday that it had conducted 450 airstrikes since Saturday, including 25 on Wednesday that destroyed a mosque it said was used as a missile storehouse, several rocket-launching sites, a weapons-smuggling tunnel and a training camp.

But the daily summaries of the military's claims conflict at times with testimony on the ground.

On Monday, the military said an airstrike on the Jabaliya refugee camp destroyed a vehicle loaded with "dozens of Grad-type missiles" as they were being transferred by Hamas militants to a new hide-out.

In an interview Wednesday, Ahmad Sammour said the Mercedes pickup was being loaded with oxygen cylinders used for soldering in his scrap metal workshop. The 58-year-old blacksmith said he had decided to move them after the shop was damaged by an airstrike on the house next door and exposed to possible looting.

His son Imad, 31, two other relatives and five helpers were killed in the airstrike, he said. Sammour, who owns the shop but no longer works there because the fumes from soldering aggravate his asthma, said he was standing 100 feet away when the blast occurred.

"What the Israelis said about this is not true," he said. "Let them send whoever they want to look at the wreckage. It's all still here, where the truck was hit." He was interviewed after the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem called attention to his case.

A military spokesman said an army video of the incident "speaks for itself; any claims to the contrary are an attempt at media manipulation by Hamas."

"We're not involved in anything political," the blacksmith countered. "We had that shop and all my sons were helping me. This is all we did."

Wednesday's airstrikes killed a garbage collector riding his donkey cart in Khan Yunis, witnesses said, and the two doctors, who had rushed to the site of an airstrike in northern Gaza.

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