Israel considers 2-day halt to airstrikes

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM - After four days of airstrikes that have partially crippled Hamas, Israel signaled interest yesterday in a proposed 48-hour suspension of its offensive in the Gaza Strip to test the prospects for a full cease-fire with the militant Palestinian group.

The proposal, offered by France on behalf of the European Union, came as Israel's air force appeared to be running short of bombing targets and losing the advantage of surprise it achieved early in the offensive that began Saturday.

Israeli aircraft continued to attack the coastal enclave yesterday, pounding supply tunnels under Gaza's border with Egypt, an empty Hamas government complex, several security installations and the home of a senior Hamas commander.

The four-day death toll rose to 384 Palestinians, including Lama Hamdan, 4, and her sister Haia, 11, who were riding a donkey cart near a rocket-launching site targeted by Israel. The United Nations said nearly 70 civilians had been killed in Gaza since Saturday, feeding diplomatic pressure on Israel to halt the offensive. Four Israeli civilians were killed by rockets during the period.

Hamas fired 42 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli communities yesterday, striking deeper than ever into the Jewish state but causing no serious casualties. Two rockets landed 28 miles from Gaza in the desert city of Beersheba, a range that makes 700,000 Israelis, 10 percent of the country's population, potential targets.

The open-ended offensive is the strongest attempt yet to break Hamas' capacity and will to stage rocket attacks, which have intensified since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Israeli officials say the airstrikes have destroyed one-third of Hamas' estimated arsenal of 3,000 rockets and half of its underground launch silos - "an overwhelming blow, albeit far from critical," said Yair Naveh, a former commander of Israeli forces in the West Bank.

He said the offensive, aimed at breaking Hamas' capacity and will to continue the rocket attacks, was nearing a decisive point: Israeli leaders must either escalate the fight with a ground invasion of Gaza or arrange a cease-fire.

Israeli officials said they were weighing both options. But the desire for a truce appeared to dominate a series of high-level meetings yesterday in Jerusalem, prodded by France's initiative and by an indirect show of interest from Hamas.

The idea of a truce was floated Sunday by Khaled Meshaal, Hamas' top political leader, based in Syria, in a telephone call to Senegalese President Abdoullaye Wade, who heads the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Senegal's Foreign Ministry announced that Hamas was interested in a cease-fire if it included a lifting of Israel's blockade of Gaza, which has severely restricted the flow of goods across the border.

France, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union until tomorrow, took up the idea and proposed a 48-hour truce. Israel would halt its attacks and lift the blockade to let in humanitarian relief supplies, testing Hamas' willingness to stop the rockets. If calm prevailed for 48 hours, talks on a long-term cease-fire would begin.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner telephoned Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak twice yesterday to discuss the proposal. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was to meet in Paris tomorrow with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, his office announced.

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