As Israel considers a lull in its airstrikes on Gaza, Israeli soldiers are preparing for the possibility of a broader ground war in the Hamas-controlled territory.
"I'm not taking my boots off," Yonatan, a 27-year-old soldier, told the Times of London as he crouched in his tank. His unit is waiting for the order to move. "What I've learnt from the past week is that there is no knowing when we will go into Gaza."
Yonatan's combat unit has slept within view of the Gaza border for the past two nights. Stretching in front of their tanks are hills that have been turned to sludge by the week's rains.
The so-called Quartet of Mideast peacemakers — the United States, the Eureopean Union, the United Nations and Russia — have urged Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a cease-fire after four days of Israeli missile attacks and counterfire from Hamas.
And President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called leaders in the Middle East to press for a durable solution beyond any immediate truce.
Israel, which launched the attacks in response to years of cross-border attacks by Hamas, has suggested it may halt strikes for 48 hours to allow militants the chance to do the same.
Israeli leaders emerged from discussions Tuesday night without announcing any action on a cease-fire, and a ground invasion remains a possibility.
"I think we've thrown down the gauntlet and now Hamas needs to respond. A ground operation might not happen. But for a threat to be effective, you have to have the capability of carrying it out," Yonatan, the Israeli soldier, told the Times of London, FOX News' corporate sister newspaper.
A lull in the fighting would also allow Israel to wait for the inclement weather to pass. Major-General Yair Naveh, a former head of Israeli Central Command, likened the situation to an American football match, the Times reported.
"We are now finishing the first quarter and the time is ripe for a timeout. It's up to the other team now to decide whether they want to forfeit, or go forth. And the next round we play will include not just our air force, but ground forces as well, and it will be a tough fight and a long one."
Though support for the Gaza offensive runs high among Israelis, a ground attack could expose flaws in the operation and carries a high casualty risk for soldiers.
Even amid talk of a truce, Israeli warplanes continued to unload bombs on targets in Gaza. The Israeli assault has killed at least 368 Palestinians — mostly members of Hamas security forces, but the number included at least 64 civilians, the U.N. said
Hamas, whose charter specifically calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, kept up its rocket barrages, which have killed four Israelis since the weekend, and sent many more in running for bomb shelters.
Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and many other Western nations. 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.
The Times of London and the Associated Press contributed to this report.