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Israel and Hamas under pressure for Gaza aid truce

384 dead and more than 800 wounded

Lit candles are placed on the ground in old Damascus, yesterday, during a protest against the Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Lit candles are placed on the ground in old Damascus, yesterday, during a protest against the Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Foreign powers pressed Israel and Hamas yesterday to accept a truce allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, after four days of Israeli air attacks and rocket salvoes by the Islamist militants deep inside the Jewish state.

A senior Western diplomat said European Union states were discussing ways to open aid corridors to the coastal Gaza Strip, by land, air or sea, but establishing them would require Israel and Hamas to hold their fire.

Medical officials put Palestinian casualties since the air strikes began on Saturday at 384 dead and more than 800 wounded. A UN agency said at least 62 of the dead were civilians. In all, four Israelis have been killed since the operation began.

Israel said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner spoke to Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak by telephone and proposed a 48-hour truce to allow in aid. France said it would host Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for talks tomorrow.

"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," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said.

He added: "At the same time, it is important to keep the pressure up on Hamas, not give them a respite, time to regroup and reorganise."

Hamas has said a ceasefire must be accompanied by a lifting of Israel's Gaza blockade. Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said: "We are not begging for calm and there is no room to talk about calm amid the continued aggression and siege."

The White House said President George W. Bush spoke to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad yesterday to discuss how to end the violence. He also called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to thank him for "the positive role" that Egypt was playing.

Foreign ministers from the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers - the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union - called yesterday for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and southern Israel after a telephone consultation.

About 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza, which has one of the highest population densities and demographic growth rates in the world. Most Gazans live on less than $2 a day and up to 80 per cent are dependent on food aid, according to aid groups.

The Islamist group took over Gaza from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction in fighting in June 2007. It has rejected international demands to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals.

Despite winter rain, which could impede a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, Israeli warplanes carried out attacks on Hamas target for a fourth day, killing 13 Palestinians. They included sisters aged four and 11. A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit the city of Beersheba, 42 kilometres inside Israel yesterday, medical officials said, the deepest such attack yet by militants.

There were no reports of casualties inside Israel. A day earlier three Israelis were killed by rockets. Israel says its air strikes are aimed at ending such attacks.

According to internal Israeli assessments, the air offensive had destroyed a third of the Hamas rocket arsenal but the faction's guerrilla army remained 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 Defence Ministry about Israel's deadliest Gaza campaign since the 1967 Middle East war, when the territory was captured from Egypt.

A separate proposal, under discussion by Turkey and Egypt, as well as by several Arab governments, calls for a ceasefire and re-opening of Gaza's crossings with Israel, diplomats said.

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