GAZA, (Reuters) – Israel on Wednesday said the time was not right for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and stepped up preparations for a possible ground offensive after Hamas’s long-range rockets hit another major population centre.
“If conditions will ripen and we think there will be a diplomatic solution that will ensure a better security reality in the south, we will consider it. But at the moment, it’s not there,” an aide quoted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as saying.
France had proposed a 48-hour truce that would allow in more humanitarian aid for Gaza’s 1.5 million residents. Olmert made the remarks — which did not rule out a ceasefire in the future — to his security cabinet, which had rebuffed the plan.
Diplomats said the deadliest conflict in the Gaza Strip in four decades appeared close to a tipping point after four days of air strikes that have killed 387 Palestinians, at least a quarter of whom, U.N. figures showed, were civilians. Three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed by rockets.
Foreign powers have increased pressure on both sides to halt hostilities, but public anger in Israel over the widening of the rocket attacks to include Beersheba, 40 km (24 miles) from Gaza, could prompt the government to hit Hamas even harder.
Along the heavily-fortified border fence, Israeli tank crews prepared for battle while Islamist militants, hiding as little as a few hundred yards (meters) away, laid land mines and other booby traps should a ground war break out.
Inside Gaza, for the first time since the fighting began, many residents ventured outside their homes to stock up on supplies, taking advantage of a lull in Israeli air strikes that have turned Hamas government buildings into piles of rubble.
Some children played happily in the rain, as one parent remarked they were finally able to run free after what he called three days of “house arrest”.
But Olmert’s security cabinet made clear there would be no respite for Hamas. “There is no intention of stopping the military activity,” said minister Meir Sheetrit, adding that a ground operation was still “on the table”.
Israel said the French proposal called for the Jewish state to hold its fire but provided no explicit guarantees that Hamas would do the same. “A band-aid solution that is neither sustainable nor real will have us back to where we are today in a month or two,” said Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev.
Israeli officials said they were open to amendments and alternatives being put forward by other international parties.
Cabinet ministers, however, approved the mobilisation of 2,500 army reservists, expanding on an earlier call-up of 6,500 soldiers for the garrison on the Gaza border, officials said.
Israel said it was doing its part to let humanitarian supplies into Gaza despite the rocket fire. More than 100 truckloads of food and medicine were expected to enter on Wednesday, defence official Peter Lerner said.
With Palestinians increasingly enraged over the Gaza offensive, aides said President Mahmoud Abbas would ask the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.
Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo to seek a common position in response to the Israeli attacks, but the Arab world is deeply divided in its attitude towards Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip last year after fighting a brief civil war with the secular Fatah faction loyal to Western-backed Abbas.
The diplomatic moves coincided with an escalation in Hamas rocket fire deeper inside Israel.
At least four of the longer-range Grad rockets hit Beersheba, the city Israel calls the capital of the Negev, its southern region. One struck a school that was empty. Municipal authorities had cancelled classes after rockets landed in Beersheba on Tuesday evening for the first time.
Other long-range rockets hit the southern coastal city of Ashkelon. Dozens of short-range rockets pelted border towns.
The head of Israel’s domestic Shin Bet intelligence agency, Yuval Diskin, told the cabinet the air campaign had dealt a “serious” blow to Hamas, which has balked at demands by Western powers that it recognise the Jewish state and renounce violence.
Diskin said some Hamas activists were hiding in Gaza hospitals and mosques to avoid air strikes, believing they were off limits to attack. Israel has struck several mosques, alleging they were being used as command-and-control centres and to store weapons.
Israeli aircraft had carried out five air strikes in the Gaza Strip so far on Wednesday, the lowest number since the campaign began, targeting smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt frontier and Hamas government offices in Gaza City. Palestinian medics said two people, a doctor and a paramedic, were killed.
Rain over the past few days and fresh showers on Wednesday could delay any push soon by Israeli tanks into the territory and also limit air operations. Forecasters predicted several days of clear skies starting late on Thursday.
Gaza City taxi driver Mazen Ahmen called the rain “a truce imposed by God”.
Olmert’s centrist government launched the operation six weeks before a Feb. 10 election that opinion polls predict the opposition right-wing Likud party will win, with the goal of halting rocket attacks by militants in Gaza.
The current violence erupted after a six-month ceasefire brokered by Egypt expired on Dec. 19 and Hamas intensified rocket attacks from the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.
France said it would host Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday and an Israeli official said French President Nicolas Sarkozy planned to visit Jerusalem next Monday.
In Gaza, basic food supplies were running low and power cuts were affecting much of the territory. Hospitals were struggling to cope with the high number of casualties from the offensive.
Muawiyah Hassanein, Gaza’s emergency services chief, said 180 of the more than 800 Palestinians wounded in the Israeli strikes were in critical condition and could die unless Israel allowed them to leave the territory. Defence official Lerner said 20 Gazans were allowed to leave on Wednesday for treatment at Israeli hospitals.