Tobias Buck, Andrew England, Peggy Hollinger
The Financial Times
December 31, 2008 - 1:00am

Israel said yesterday its military was ready for "weeks of action" in spite of growing diplomatic pressure and Arab anger over its bombardment of the Hamascontrolled Gaza Strip.

The quartet of Middle East peace brokers - the United Nations, the US, Russia and the European Union - last night urged a ceasefire in Gaza and southern Israel. The UN said: "They called for an immediate ceasefire that would be fully respected."

An emergency meeting of EU ministers in Paris was expected last night to call for a 48-hour truce to allow medical supplies through to Gaza's civilian population.

The EU was also expected to urge a halt to all hostilities, the reopening of the Rafah crossing point between the strip and Egypt, an EU mission to monitor any ceasefire and a return to peace talks.

But Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, dimmed hopes of a speedy truce, saying the offensive "will not end . . . until our goals are reached".

Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, lashed out at Israel yesterday. Reflecting mounting pressure from protesters at home and across the Arab world, he said in a televised address: "We say to [Israeli] leaders: 'you bear the responsibility for your savage aggression against the Palestinians, regardless of what justifications you use as an excuse'. And we say to them: 'your bloodstained hands are stirring up feelings of enormous anger'." However, neither Arab criticism nor European appeals succeeded in quelling the violence, as both sides continued assaults that have killed at least 383 Palestinians and four Israelis since Saturday.

Israeli aircraft again attacked a range of targets inside the strip, including key government buildings, while Hamas and other militant Gaza-based groups fired rockets and mortars on nearby Israeli cities. A Palestinian rocket hit the city of Beersheba last night, according to the Israeli army. The rocket struck 40km from Gaza, the deepest yet into Israeli territory.

Matan Vilnai, Israel's deputy defence minister, said there was "no room for a ceasefire", adding that the military had "made preparations for some long weeks of action".

The Israeli army has amassed troops and tanks on the border with Gaza in preparation for a possible ground assault. Israeli analysts said the government would soon have to decide whether to go ahead with an incursion, as the number of obvious targets to strike inside Gaza from the air might be about to run out.

Arab foreign ministers are to hold an emergency meeting in Cairo today in an attempt to find a common position on the attacks.

Hesham Youssef, a senior official at the Arab League, said the meeting would discuss proposals put forward by Egypt, Palestinian officials and Jordan.

Egypt, which faces Arab criticism for its decision to keep its border with Gaza closed, has submitted a four-point plan, which includes a ceasefire, a return to the truce between Hamas and Israel that expired this month, renewed efforts to reconcile divided Palestinian factions and a reopening of its border with Gaza.


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