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Israeli troops poised at Gaza border

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel sent more troops to the Gaza border Wednesday, rapidly moving forward with preparations for a possible ground offensive as the next stage of its military assault on the coastal territory's Hamas rulers.

Israel rebuffed calls by world leaders for a truce, and Hamas was cold to a cease-fire.

Instead, both intensified their fire. Israel bombed a mosque that it said was used to store rockets as well as vital smuggling tunnels along the Egyptian border, and the Islamic militants hammered southern Israeli cities with about 60 rockets.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled emergency consultations Wednesday night to discuss an Arab request for a legally binding and enforceable resolution to ensure an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. Egyptian Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz said he was acting on instructions from Arab League foreign ministers who met in Cairo.

Diplomatic efforts by U.S., European and Middle Eastern leaders appeared to be having little effect. A French proposal for a 48-hour cease-fire to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza failed to gain traction. A separate proposal by Turkey and Egypt, two of Israel's few allies in the Muslim world, also seemed to be attracting little serious study in Israel or Gaza, where Hamas has also dismissed talk of a truce.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said President Bush had spoken Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who told Bush that Israel was targeting Hamas operatives and trying to avoid civilian casualties. Johndroe said they hadn't discussed a specific timetable for seeking a cease-fire.

"What's more important is the goal. As I said, we all want to see an end to the violence as soon as possible," Johndroe said at a news conference in Crawford, Texas, where Bush is visiting his family ranch. "President Bush wants to see an end to the violence. Prime Minister Olmert wants to see an end to the violence. But I think from the prime minister's perspective, an end to the violence means that Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel, and Israel won't have to go after the rocket launchers."

Moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival who controls only the West Bank, suggested he would not continue peace talks with Israel at any price. He said on Palestinian TV that the stalled negotiating process had become useless and was not reaching any of its goals — namely the creation of a Palestinian state.

"Negotiation is not a goal by itself; it's a tool," Abbas said. "Unless it is a tool to achieve peace … there is no need for it to continue."

With a shrinking number of targets to hit from the air and top Hamas leaders deep in hiding, a ground operation seemed all the more likely. In five days, Israeli warplanes have carried out about 500 sorties against Hamas targets, and helicopters have flown hundreds more combat missions, a senior Israeli military officer said on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

Heavy cloud cover that could encumber ground forces was expected to lift today.

U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said the death toll was estimated to range between 320 and 390, and injured from 1,500 to 1,900.

Between 20 percent and 25 percent of the dead are either women or children, said U.N. Relief and Works Agency commissioner Karen Abu Zayd.

Hamas says about 200 uniformed members of its security forces have been killed, and the United Nations says at least 60 Palestinian civilians have died.

In Israel, three civilians and a soldier have been killed by rocket fire, which has reached deeper into Israel than ever.

Israeli troops poised at Gaza border 12/31/08 [Last modified: Thursday, January 1, 2009 11:31pm]
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