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Israel rebuffs Gaza truce call, mobilizes troops
GAZA (Reuters) - Israel rejected calls for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday after Hamas rockets hit an Israeli town and Palestinians endured more air strikes on the last day of 2008.
Israel also stepped up preparations for a possible ground offensive into the densely-populated coastal enclave.
Israeli aircraft carried out more than 10 air raids in reduced operations in rainy weather that allowed many Gaza residents to venture out to shop for food for the first time since the start of the five-day-old offensive.
The poor weather -- "a truce imposed by God" as one Palestinian put it -- could delay any push by Israeli tanks into Gaza but forecasters predicted several days of clear skies starting late on Thursday.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the Israeli attacks must stop before any truce proposals could be considered. Israel must also lift its economic blockade of Gaza and open border crossings, he said in a televised speech to Palestinians.
"After that it will be possible to talk on all issues without any exception," Haniyeh said.
U.S. President George W. Bush spoke by phone to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert but did not discuss a timetable for halting Israeli strikes, the White House said. Bush put the onus on Hamas to stop firing rockets as a first step to a truce.
Foreign pressure has grown on both sides to end hostilities, but Israel brushed aside as "unrealistic" a French proposal for a 48-hour truce that would allow in more humanitarian aid for Gaza's 1.5 million residents.
"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 Olmert as saying.
"We didn't start this operation just to end it with rocket fire continuing as it did before it began," Olmert told his security cabinet, according to the aide.
With Palestinians increasingly enraged over the offensive, President Mahmoud Abbas called for the fighting to be stopped "immediately and without any conditions" and said Israel was fully responsible for the carnage. Abbas will ask the U.N. Security Council to act, aides said.
Diplomats said the deadliest conflict in the Gaza Strip in four decades could get even bloodier after four days of air strikes that have killed at least 396 Palestinians, at least a quarter of whom, U.N. figures showed, were civilians.
Along the 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, many residents stepped outside their homes to stock up on supplies, taking advantage of a lull in Israeli air strikes that have flattened Hamas government buildings.
"What we need most is sugar, rice and flour and there is nothing of that in the stores," said Abu Hani, trying to buy food for his family of five.
Huda, a Palestinian mother, said: "When this all is over, we will all need to see a psychiatrist because of the horrors we have witnessed."
Despite calls by European and Arab powers for an end to the violence, 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.
Israeli officials said they could consider amendments to the French proposal and alternatives suggested by other parties.
Cabinet ministers, however, approved the mobilization of 2,500 army reservists, expanding on an earlier call-up of 6,500 soldiers for the force on the Gaza border, and officials said a ground offensive was an option.
Israel said it was doing its part to let humanitarian supplies into Gaza despite the rocket fire. Ninety-three truckloads of food, medicine and blood for hospitals entered on Wednesday, Israeli official Peter Lerner said. Gaza officials said another 97 trucks would be let in on Thursday.
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 toward Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip last year after fighting a brief war with the secular Fatah faction loyal to Western-backed Abbas.
Following a request by Arab countries, the Security Council scheduled a meeting on the violence for 6 p.m. EST (2300 GMT).
At least eight long-range Grad rockets hit the desert city of Beersheba. One struck a school that was empty after
authorities canceled classes.
Mayor Rubie Danilovitch told Beersheba residents to cancel New Year's parties and stay at home.
Other long-range rockets hit the southern coastal city of Ashkelon and dozens of short-range rockets pelted border towns.
Israel's air strikes on Wednesday targeted smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt frontier and Hamas government offices in Gaza City. Palestinian medics said five people -- two militants, a doctor, a paramedic and a woman -- were killed.
Food supplies in Gaza 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.
Medical officials revised the number of wounded to 1,712 after figures arrived from medical centers. Three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed by rockets.
Olmert's centrist government launched the operation six weeks before a February 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 December 19 and Hamas intensified rocket attacks from the 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.
(Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Ari Rabinovitch, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, Wafa Amr and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, James Mackenzie in Paris and Alaa Shahine in Cairo; Writing by Adam Entous and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Philippa Fletcher)
(For more stories on Gaza, please click on [nLO226261])
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