Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Prime Minister Olmert dismisses talk of ceasefire with Hamas

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

BY MATTHEW KALMAN in Jerusalem and HELEN KENNEDY in New York

A compound of Hamas ministry buildings destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Hopes for an early end to the bloodshed looked dim as both sides continued to strike on day four of the recent violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert batted away calls for a ceasefire in the Gaza bombardment, even as the diplomatic window began to close on his bid to crush Hamas.

"The Gaza offensive will not end until our goals are reached," Olmert said last night amid reports that defense officials intended to recommend a 48-hour lull in air strikes.

The idea was to see if Hamas would stop firing rockets into Israel - and avoid a bloody ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner proposed a truce on humanitarian grounds to let aid reach the blockaded civilians in Gaza.

Secretary of State Rice echoed the call, as did leaders of Russia, the UN and the European Union.

Olmert's spokesman said the government wasn't opposed to helping Palestinian civilians but would keep pounding their Hamas government.

"We want to see convoy after convoy of humanitarian support, and we are willing to work closely with all relevant international parties to facilitate that goal," spokesman Mark Regev said.

"At the same time, it is important to keep the pressure up on Hamas, not give them a respite."

International aid is flooding in: Washington announced an $85million donation for Palestinians to the UN refugee agency - although diplomats say it's impossible to distribute supplies as long as the air strikes continue.

All signs continued to point to escalation, not lull.

Troops and tanks were massed on the border, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak asked for the authority to call up 2,510 more reservists on top of the 6,500 mobilized Sunday.

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gabriela Shalev, said the aim of the operation was to "completely destroy" Hamas.

Israeli jets pounded Gaza for a fourth day, leveling workshops used to manufacture rockets, more buildings at the Islamic University and a soccer field. Two girls riding in a donkey cart were among the victims.

Hamas rockets kept landing in Israeli towns and hit an empty kindergarten in Beersheba. No injuries were reported.

Egypt came to the end of its patience with Israel's assault. President Hosni Mubarak, whose ministers had earlier blamed Hamas for the crisis and traded insults with Iran and Hezbollah over Egypt's failure to condemn Israel, called for an immediate ceasefire.

"We say to Israel: We condemn your belligerency," Mubarak said in a televised address. "You are responsible for your barbaric violence against the Palestinians, no matter what excuses you use to justify it."

Mubarak also refused to reopen the Rafah border crossing into Gaza until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regains control.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since last year, after winning an election and seizing control from Fatah forces loyal to Abbas.

That split within the Palestinians has meant the West Bank has been relatively calm. Residents are torn between anger at the Israeli strikes and their growing enmity for Hamas.

"People here are confused because Fatah and Hamas are accusing each other," said one community leader in the West Bank city of Jenin. "In the middle of the bloodshed, they are still fighting each other."

President Bush called Abbas for the first time since the air strikes began but offered little beyond concern for the residents of Gaza and the need for an end to Hamas firing rockets.

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