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GAZA CITY, Dec 30: Israel on Tuesday mulled a proposed 48-hour truce as world leaders stepped up calls for an end to the violence and warplanes pummelled Hamas targets in the battered Gaza Strip for a fourth day.

But Israeli officials warned that the onslaught, which has killed at least 368 Palestinians, could continue for weeks, while Hamas militants remained defiant, firing more deadly rockets into Israel and threatening to step up the attacks.

“We tell the leaders of the enemy — if you continue with your assault, we will hit with our rockets further than the cities we have hit so far,” a masked spokesman for the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas armed wing, said in televised comments.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was meeting his foreign and defence ministers to consider a French proposal for a 48-hour truce in Gaza, a senior official said.

But throughout the day, Israeli officials insisted the armed forces would press on with the offensive, which has sparked Muslim outrage and protests worldwide.

“What we want is not a ceasefire but a stop to terrorism,” said President Shimon Peres.

Accompanying Peres on a tour of the Israeli High Command headquarters, armed forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi said: “It is our intention to continue this operation in an urgent manner to improve the security situation for the residents of the south.”

Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer warned a ceasefire would allow Hamas “to regain strength, recover from the shock and prepare an even stronger attack against Israel.”

“There is no reason that we would accept a ceasefire at this stage,” he said.

Olmert said the bombardment so far was “the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet,” while deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai warned the offensive could turn into “weeks of combat.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice renewed calls for a halt to the fighting in a telephone conversation, Moscow said.—AFP