GAZA (Reuters) - Foreign powers stepped up calls on Israel and Hamas on Tuesday to halt hostilities after four days of Israeli air attacks on the Gaza Strip and rocket salvoes by the Islamist militants deep inside the Jewish state.
The Quartet of Middle East peace brokers — the United Nations, United States, Russia and European Union — urged an immediate ceasefire, a U.N. spokeswoman said after telephone consultations by the group’s foreign ministers.
Israeli warplanes destroyed Hamas targets for a fourth day, including five ministerial buildings and a structure belonging to the Islamic University in Gaza City.
Medical officials put Palestinian casualties since the aerial onslaught began on Saturday at 384 dead and more than 800 wounded. A U.N. agency said at least 62 of the dead were civilians. Four Israelis have been killed.
Israeli media quoted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as saying the Gaza offensive, launched by his centrist government six weeks before an election that opinion polls predict the opposition right-wing Likud party will win, was in “the first of several stages.”
Israel says its air bombardments are aimed at ending rocket attacks launched from Gaza, which have caused panic for months in areas where one-eighth of its population lives.
Two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit the city of Beersheba on Tuesday, 42 km (26 miles) inside Israel, police said — the deepest such attack yet by militants, who have launched more than 400 rockets across the border since Saturday, according to an Israeli military assessment.
Three Israelis were killed by rockets on Monday but there were no reports of serious casualties inside Israel on Tuesday.
In Gaza, basic food supplies were running low and power cuts were affecting much of the territory. Hospitals lacked at least 80 essential medicines as well as scores of instruments, Health Ministry official Muawiyah Hassanein said.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner proposed Israel accept a 48-hour truce to allow aid into Gaza. France said it would host Livni on Thursday and an Israeli official said French President Nicolas Sarkozy might visit Jerusalem next Monday.
EU foreign ministers called late on Tuesday for an immediate and lasting truce and for humanitarian aid to be let into Gaza.
The EU said it would work with other members of the Quartet, and send a delegation of ministers to the region shortly.
Turkey, Egypt and several other Arab governments are also pursuing their own initiative calling for a ceasefire and reopening of Gaza’s crossings with Israel, diplomats said.
Olmert met Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni late on Tuesday to discuss the initiatives, Israel Radio said.
Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev said Israel supported the idea of letting aid into Gaza.
“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,” he said.
“At the same time, it is important to keep the pressure up on Hamas, not give them a respite, time to regroup and reorganize.”
About 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza, which has one of the highest population densities and growth rates in the world. Most Gazans live on less than $2 a day and up to 80 percent are dependent on food aid, according to aid groups.
Hamas seized Gaza from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah faction in fighting in June 2007. The Islamists have rejected international demands to recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals.
Hamas was cool to the idea of a truce. It said the onus was on Israel to stop firing and lift the blockade of Gaza.
“You can’t equate the victim and the jailer,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told reporters. “What is required at this time is an Arab and international effort to stop the (Israeli) aggression and open the (border) crossings.”
The White House said President George W. Bush had spoken to Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Tuesday to discuss how to end the violence.
According to internal Israeli assessments, the air offensive has destroyed a third of the Hamas rocket arsenal but the faction’s guerrilla army remains largely intact, Israel’s Channel 10 television reported.
“None of us can say how long it will take,” Israeli President Shimon Peres said after being briefed at the Defense Ministry about Israel’s deadliest Gaza campaign since the 1967 Middle East war, when the territory was captured from Egypt.
Barak said he would seek Israeli cabinet approval for the mobilization of 2,500 army reservists, compounding an earlier call-up of 6,500 reservists for the garrison on the Gaza border.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was due in Syria and Jordan on Tuesday. Al Arabiya television said he would meet Khaled Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader living in Damascus, although Erdogan’s office said no such meeting was scheduled.
Palestinian officials said Abbas would meet Erdogan in Jordan in the evening.
In northern Gaza, two Palestinian sisters were killed in an air raid near their home, medical workers said. The area has been a launching ground for cross-border rocket attacks.
“We are living in horror, we and our children. The situation is not just bad, it is tragic,” said Gazan Abu Fares, standing outside his home near the rubble of a building bombed overnight.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Andrew Dobbie and Kevin Liffey