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Israel considering truce offer

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Israel, under international pressure, is considering a 48-hour halt to its punishing four-day air campaign on Hamas targets in Gaza to see if Palestinian militants will stop their rocket attacks on southern Israel, Israeli officials said Tuesday.

Any offer would be coupled with a threat to send in ground troops if the rocket fire continues.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed the proposal - floated by France's foreign minister - and other possible next steps with his foreign and defense ministers, Israeli officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to make the information public.

European Union foreign ministers met Tuesday evening in Paris for urgent talks on the crisis, with France and Germany both seeking a cease-fire.

President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called leaders in the Middle East to press for a durable solution beyond any immediate truce.

And members of the Quartet of world powers trying to promote Mideast peace concluded a conference call with an appeal for an immediate cease-fire. The Quartet powers are the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

In its Tuesday night meeting, Israel's leadership trio stepped up preparations for a ground offensive, conducting a telephone survey among Cabinet ministers on a plan to call up an additional 2,500 reserve soldiers, if required. Earlier this week, the Cabinet authorized a callup of 6,700 soldiers.

And even amid talk of a truce, Israeli warplanes continued to unload bombs on targets in Gaza. Powerful airstrikes caused Gaza City's high-rise apartment buildings to sway and showered streets with broken glass and pulverized concrete. Israel's ground forces on Gaza's border also used artillery for the first time.

Hamas kept up its rocket barrages, which have killed four Israelis since the weekend, and sent many more in running for bomb shelters - some of them in cities under threat of attack for the first time, as the range of the rockets grows.

A medium-range rocket hit the city of Beersheba for the first time ever, zooming 28 miles deep into Israel and slamming into an empty kindergarten. A second rocket landed in an open area near the desert city, Israel's fifth-largest. The military said later it successfully struck the group that launched those rockets.

A pattern of daytime lulls and nighttime spikes in rocket fire appeared to be emerging as militants found safer launch cover in darkness.

Four days into a campaign that has killed 374 Palestinians and prompted Arab and international condemnation, a diplomatic push to end the fighting gathered pace.