The European Union called Tuesday for a permanent ceasefire to end the violence in the Gaza Strip even as Israel said its air assault is "just the beginning" of operations aimed at ending militant rocket fire.
As Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip continued for a fourth day, France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Tuesday urged Israel and Hamas to end the bloodshed.
"We want a ceasefire. We want it to be permanent, to be respected, with humanitarian access because there are many victims... and also a return to the peace process," Kouchner said at a hastily arranged crisis meeting on the Gaza violence in Paris.
France, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, called the emergency meeting of European diplomats on Tuesday evening as a response to the spiraling violence in the Middle East.
The escalation of violence in the Mideast has sparked a flurry of international diplomacy
The meeting opened as the so-called "Quartet" of Middle East mediators - the United Nations, EU US and Russia -- held a conference call on the outbreak of hostilities, and a day after French President Nicolas Sarkozy discussed the crisis in a telephone call with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosny Mubarak.
The EU's priority is to broker an end to the fighting and a return to a peace negotiated by Egyptian mediators in June, French officials said ahead of the Tuesday meeting.
In addition, the 27-member bloc is keen to see the Gaza Strip re-opened to humanitarian aid, cut off since Israel began its aerial bombardment of the territory on Saturday.
To that end, Kouchner and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called for a temporary ceasefire to allow aid workers into the strip in separate conversations with top Israeli, Egyptian and Syrian officials.
Israel rejects notion of ceasefire
But on Tuesday a spokesman for Olmert ruled out the idea of a ceasefire.
"Giving Hamas a rest period to re-group and rearm, reducing the pressure on that organization, would be a mistake," spokesman Mark Regev told German news agency dpa.
Earlier Israeli Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit said "there is no room for a ceasefire" with Hamas until the threat of rocket fire had been removed. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that the four-day-old bombardment of Gaza was the "the first of several stages" of a planned offensive.
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu told Reuters the Jewish state would eventually have to remove Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip.
"Whether it can be done right now is something I don't think we should discuss here. But it should be discussed because ultimately, if we don't do it, then Hamas will rearm itself," he said.
Heavy casualties in Gaza Strip
Palestinians say 380 people have been killed so far in Israeli air strikes and over 1,500 injured.
"We are living in horror, we and our children. The situation is not just bad, it is tragic," Gaza resident Abu Fares, standing outside his home, told Reuters news agency.
Reports say the situation in Gaza is desperate
The UN has called for an investigation into the attacks, which are causing heavy civilian casualties. It says at least 62 of the Palestinians killed so far were women and children.
Doctors in Gaza say they are struggling to treat hundreds of injured and lack essential medical supplies. Israel has massed forces along the border with Gaza and has declared the area around it a "closed military zone."
Hamas strikes back
But a defiant Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, stepped up its attacks against Israel, showering towns around Gaza with dozens of rockets and reaching several in a circumference from the strip that had not previously been targeted.
Two Israelis were killed in the heavy barrage late Monday, bringing the Israeli toll since Saturday to four dead and several dozen injured.
An Israeli military spokeswoman in Tel Aviv said some 30 targets were struck early Tuesday since midnight, after a total of some 70 were hit Sunday.
Among others, three buildings in the Gaza City government headquarters of Hamas, the radical Islamic movement ruling Gaza, were struck overnight. The Israel Air Force also bombed and rocketed more Hamas outposts, as well as a number of rocket launching squads and launchers themselves, she said.
The violence has sparked pro-Gaza protests around the world
Palestinians said the three buildings in the government complex included the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the office of the de-facto prime minister, Ismail Haniya, of Hamas.
The Israeli offensive, which came eight days after Hamas unilaterally ended a six-month truce, continued meanwhile to focus on airstrikes, but Israel is in the advanced stages of preparing for a possible ground offensive as well.
Israel preparing for ground offensive?
Large columns of tanks, military vehicles and buses with Israeli soldiers on board meanwhile have moved southwards since Sunday.
The Israeli army on Monday also declared the area around Gaza a "closed military zone," meaning no civilians will be allowed through roadblocks set up on key entry roads.
The Israeli cabinet on Sunday authorized the call up of 6,500 reserve soldiers.
Since the truce began disintegrating in early November, Israel's borders with Gaza have been completely shut to all but sporadic shipments of basic humanitarian supplies.