Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Israel Rejects Temporary Truce as Gaza Fighting Intensifies

By Calev Ben-David and Saud Abu Ramadan

Dec. 31 (Bloomberg) -- The Israeli government rejected a temporary cease-fire with Hamas, as its aircraft bombed targets in Gaza for a fifth day and rockets fired from the coastal enclave struck deeper throughout the country's south.

Israel will consider a truce only once the overall security situation changes, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the close of today's meeting of the Security Cabinet, his spokesman said.

"We believe a respite to Hamas just to rearm and regroup would be a mistake," Prime Minister's Office spokesman Mark Regev said in a telephone interview after the meeting. "It's important to continue the pressure on the Hamas military machine."

At least 30 rockets hit Israel today, including the first strike on the country's central roadway, Highway 6, and the cities of Ashdod, and Ashkelon, and Beersheba, which is about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Gaza. There were no reported deaths or serious injuries.

As many as 390 Palestinians have been killed and 1,900 wounded since Israel started its aerial campaign, according to the Palestinian emergency services office in Gaza City. At least a quarter of the fatalities were civilians, said Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Work Agency, in a phone interview. Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have died in the rocket attacks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Hamas is prepared to halt attacks on Israel if the government lifts its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Hamas's political leader, Khalid Mashaal, made the offer in a telephone call with Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on its Web site.


NOTE: Russian doublespeak again, in Soviet style.

Diplomatic Efforts

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will travel to Paris tomorrow to discuss diplomatic efforts to end the conflict with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said ministry spokesman Aviv Sharon. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner yesterday proposed a 48-hour cease-fire in the fighting.

Israel's Cabinet on Dec. 28 cleared the way for the army to draft as many as 7,000 reserves, and the military on Dec. 29 declared a swath of Israel just north of Gaza a closed military zone, where movement was restricted. Journalists were also prevented from entering. Tanks and troops have been moved up to the Gaza border, preparing for a possible ground invasion.

The decision by the Israeli government to reject calls for a temporary cease-fire is a sign that it is planning to launch a ground operation in Gaza, said Shlomo Gazit, former head of military intelligence. "If they didn't want to go in on the ground then it is likely that they would have preferred at this point to accept a cease-fire."

A six-month cease-fire with Hamas expired Dec. 19.

Tunnels Attacked

The Israeli air force attacked targets in the seaside Gaza Strip last night and this morning, including tunnels along the Egyptian border, weapon storage facilities, Hamas outposts and the office of Hamas leader Ismael Haniya, the army said in an e- mailed statement. Israeli naval forces also hit targets in Gaza, including vessels used by Hamas, it said.

The Hamas leadership met today in an undisclosed location in Gaza to avoid being targeted, according to a news statement given to reporters.

Hamas leaders condemned what they called the "fierce and barbarian attack carried out by the Israeli occupation," and called on Arab governments to take political action to stop Israel.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told an Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo today that divisions between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah led to the Israeli strikes on Gaza.

Amre Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, called on Palestinian factions to hold reconciliation talks in Cairo immediately.

Israel is allowing 106 trucks of food and other supplies to pass through a border crossing with Gaza for humanitarian purposes, said army spokeswoman Major Avital Leibovitz in a phone interview.

To contact the reporters on this story: Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem at; Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza City through the Tel Aviv newsroomt .

Last Updated: December 31, 2008 10:29 EST

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