GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel is considering suspending its Gaza offensive for 48 hours to give Hamas militants an opening to halt their rocket fire, but the threat of a ground offensive remains if the truce does not hold, Israeli officials said Tuesday.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is to raise the proposal during a meeting Tuesday night with the prime minister, said two senior officials in Barak's office who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to make the information public.
Talk of a truce seemed to be the outcome of a strong diplomatic push, particularly from Europe and the United Nations. European Union foreign ministers were scheduled to gather in Paris on Tuesday evening for an urgent meeting on the crisis in Gaza, with France and Germany both seeking a cease-fire.
In two phone calls to Barak on Monday and Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner appealed to the Israeli defense minister to consider a truce to allow humanitarian relief supplies to enter the beleaguered Gaza Strip, the officials said.
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.
Other Israeli officials, in the offices of the prime minister and from the military, denied any truce was under consideration. That suggested that the proposal was leaked to test reaction.
In the meantime, Israel's air campaign on Gaza continued. After nightfall Tuesday, warplanes pounded tunnels under the sealed Gaza-Egypt border in another attempt to cut the vital lifeline that supplies Gaza with both commercial goods and weapons for Hamas and other militant groups.
Earlier, warplanes smashed a Hamas government complex, the largest one hit so far, dumping the biggest single load of bombs on the buildings, which had been evacuated since the bombardment began Saturday. Israel also hit security installations and the home of a top militant commander.
In addition to a possible truce, an Israeli defense official said the security Cabinet would consider various plans for a ground invasion, a defense official said.
Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the current, aerial phase of the operation was just "the first of several" that have been approved, an Olmert spokesman said.
Palestinian militants, meanwhile, kept up their rocket assaults on Israeli border communities, despite relentless Israeli air attacks against Gaza's Hamas rulers and unwelcome word from Egypt that it would not bail them out.
The question hanging over the Israeli operation is how it can halt rocket fire. Israel has never found a military solution to the barrage of missiles militants have fired into southern Israel.
Beyond delivering Hamas a deep blow and protecting border communities, the assault's broader objectives remained cloudy. Israeli President Shimon Peres acknowledged the challenge, saying the operation was unavoidable but more difficult than many people anticipated.
"War against terrorists is harder in some aspects than fighting armies," Peres said.
Hamas also said it would take more to cripple it.
A spokesman for Hamas' military wing, Abu Obeida, said the group remained strong, and he vowed to fight on as long Israel continues its airstrikes. He noted that even while under heavy airstrikes, militants had fired rockets that reached Israeli towns farther from Gaza than ever. "Rockets will be on your daily agenda," he said in a message to Israelis.
And if there's a ground invasion, he promised worse. "If you enter Gaza, the children will collect your flesh and the remains of your tanks which will be spread out through the streets."
Since Saturday, 368 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli air onslaught against Gaza's Islamic Hamas rulers. The offensive came shortly after a rocky, six-month truce expired. Most of the killed were members of Hamas security forces but the number included at least 64 civilians, according to U.N. figures. Among those killed were two sisters, aged 4 and 11, who perished in an airstrike on a rocket squad in northern Gaza on Tuesday.
During brief lulls between airstrikes, Gazans tentatively ventured into the streets to buy goods and collect belongings from homes they had abandoned after Israel's aerial onslaught began Saturday.
"We just don't know what they are going to shell next. It's not safe," Khaldeh said.
The campaign has brought a new reality to southern Israel, too, where one-tenth of the country's population of 7 million has suddenly found itself within rocket range. Militants have pressed on with their rocket and mortar assaults, killing three Israeli civilians and a soldier and bringing a widening circle of targets into their sights with an arsenal of more powerful weapons.
The military estimated that close to 700,000 Israelis are now within rocket range, with the battles shifting closer to Israel's heartland. Of the four Israelis killed since the operation began Saturday, all but one were in areas that had not suffered fatalities before. On Tuesday, a Bedouin Arab town became one of the new targets.
"It's very scary," said Yaacov Pardida, a 55-year-old resident of Ashdod, southern Israel's largest city, which was hit Monday. "I never imagined that this could happen, that they could reach us here."
Adding to diplomatic efforts, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday demanded an immediate cease-fire and urged Mideast and world leaders to do more to help end the Israeli-Hamas conflict and promote political dialogue.
He also urged Arab foreign ministers, who are holding an emergency meeting in Cairo on Wednesday, "to act swiftly and decisively to bring an early end to this impasse."
Egypt, which has been blockading Gaza from its southern end, has come under pressure from the rest of the Arab world to reopen its border with the territory because of the Israeli campaign. Egypt has pried open the border to let in some of Gaza's wounded and to allow some humanitarian supplies to enter the territory. But it quickly sealed the border when Gazans tried to push through forcefully.
"We tell anybody who seeks political profits on the account of the Palestinian people: The Palestinian blood is not cheap," he said, describing such comments as "exploiting the blood of the Palestinians."
Mubarak said his country would not throw open the border crossing unless Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regains control of the border post. Mubarak has been rattled by the presence of a neighboring Islamic ministate in Gaza, fearing it would fuel more Islamic dissidence in Egypt.
Israel's air force initially hammered security facilities, then broadened to weapons-making and storage facilities, the homes of militant field operatives, and government buildings that are the symbols of Hamas' power.
The government buildings targeted Tuesday were empty, as Gazans became fearful of venturing out into the streets. For Ziad Koraz, whose nearby home was damaged in the attack on the government compound Tuesday, that violence gratuitously put Gaza civilians at risk.
"More than 17 missiles were directed at an empty government compound, without regard for civilians who lived nearby," Koraz said. "If someone committed a crime, they should go after him, not after an entire nation."
Israel has allowed a trickle of aid through its cargo crossings with Gaza despite the military campaign, agreeing to allow 100 trucks in on Tuesday, defense officials said. Jordan, the Red Cross and the World Health Organization were also preparing to send medical supplies.