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Israel Considers Offering Hamas a Cease-Fire

Israel is considering suspending its offensive on Hamas-ruled Gaza 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.

Meanwhile, police say Gaza militants fired two rockets Tuesday evening at the Israeli city of Beersheba, about 28 miles from Gaza — reaching deeper into Israel than ever before.

Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld says the long-range rocket landed in an open area outside the city. The mayor of Beersheba has told Israel television that the other rocket hit an empty kindergarten.

Click to view photos from the conflict (WARNING: Graphic)

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.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday kept up steady U.S. calls for a "durable and sustainable," but not necessarily immediate, cease-fire to end Israel's assault on Gaza and rocket attacks by Palestinian militants based there.

In phone calls with Israeli and Arab leaders, including Jordan's King Abdullah II, as well as other interested regional and international officials, Rice pressed for a durable solution to the fighting that is not used by the radical Hamas movement to launch more attacks into Israel, the State Department said.

Key world powers, including the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia, appealed "for an immediate cease-fire that would be fully respected," U.N. deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe said.

Okabe said the appeal was agreed on during a teleconference involving U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose country holds the EU presidency, and the group's Mideast envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Other Israeli officials, in the offices of the prime minister and from the military, denied any truce was under consideration.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told President Shimon Peres on Tuesday that the current, aerial phase of the operation is "the first of several" that have been approved, an Olmert spokesman said.

Israeli warplanes hit a Hamas government complex, security installations and the home of a top militant commander Tuesday as thousands of Israeli ground troops, backed by tanks and artillery, massed along the border and waited for a signal to attack.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said the operation was unavoidable but more difficult than many people anticipated.

"War against terrorists is harder in some aspects than fighting armies," Peres said.

Palestinian militants, meanwhile, kept up their rocket assaults on Israeli border communities, despite Israeli air attacks against Gaza's Hamas rulers and word from Egypt that it would not bail them out.

Israeli warplanes began their bruising aerial offensive Saturday after Hamas defied Israel's warnings that it would not stand for the rocket barrages on southern Israel that resumed nearly two months ago, toward the end of a now-expired truce.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Israel would use all legal means at its disposal to stop Hamas rocket attacks and his deputy, Matan Vilnai, said Israel was prepared for "long weeks of military action."

More than 360 Palestinians have been killed, most of them members of Hamas security forces but at least 64 of them civilians, according to U.N. figures. The toll includes two sisters, aged 4 and 11, who perished in an airstrike on a rocket squad in northern Gaza on Tuesday.

Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said "there is no room for a ceasefire" with Hamas before the threat of rocket fire has been removed. "The Israeli army must not stop the operation before breaking the will of the Palestinians, of Hamas, to continue to fire at Israel," he told Israel Radio.

Militants, battered but unbowed, 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 longer-range missiles.

"Zionists, wait for more from the resistance," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said in a text message to reporters, referring to militants' armed struggle against Israel.

The military estimated that nearly 10 percent of Israel's population of 7 million people is now within rocket range, shifting the battles 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.

Hamas, whose charter specifically calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdon and the European Union and is banned in Jordan.

From 2000 to 2004, Hamas was responsible for killing nearly 400 Israelis and wounding more than 2,000 in 425 attacks, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

From 2001 through May 2008, Hamas launched more than 3,000 Qassam rockets and 2,500 mortar attacks against Israeli targets.

Fires blazed across the Gaza Strip's main city, Gaza City, where five government buildings were badly damaged in air attacks Tuesday. Rescue workers said 40 people were injured when warplanes dropped more than a dozen bombs on the government compound. It wasn't clear whether anyone was buried under the debris.

The initial wave of airstrikes took Gaza by surprise, targeting militants and Hamas security forces at key installations, often located in the midst of tiny Gaza's densely populated towns and cities.

But the government buildings targeted later 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. "We are people who live in peace and want to live in peace. If someone committed a crime, they should go after him, not after an entire nation."

The offensive began eight days after a six-month truce between Israel and the militants expired amid a barrage of Palestinian rocket fire. The offensive comes on top of an Israeli blockade of Gaza that has largely kept all but essential goods from entering the coastal territory since Hamas violently seized control June 2007.

Israel agreed to allow 100 trucks of humanitarian aid into Gaza on Tuesday, as well as five ambulances from Turkey, defense officials said. A Jordanian diplomat said 21 Jordanian army doctors and four field hospitals would be allowed to enter on Wednesday, though Israeli officials could not immediately confirm that.

Israel's navy on Tuesday turned back a boat of pro-Palestinian protesters who had hoped to enter Gaza to demonstrate against the Israeli blockade.

So far, warplanes and unmanned drones have dominated Israel's military operation. But the military has moved up thousands of infantry soldiers and dozens of tanks and artillery pieces. The border area was declared a closed military zone on Monday, drawing a thick fog over operations in the area.

Past operations have failed to permanently stop rocket attacks. Hamas militants have continued to fire under the barrage of Israeli bombs and missiles, demonstrating with deadly effect the widening threat that is making larger cities farther inside Israel vulnerable. On Monday, a missile crashed into a bus stop in Ashdod, 23 miles from Gaza and only 25 miles from Israel's heartland in Tel Aviv.

The city of 200,000 is the largest in southern Israel.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.