Israel considers next move in Gaza amid calls for ceasefire

Israel’s most senior political leaders were meeting in Tel Aviv today to decide whether to expand their devastating offensive into the built up areas of Gaza or consider the first outlines of a ceasefire proposal.

Late yesterday France and Egypt proposed an initiative to stop the conflict in Gaza with an immediate ceasefire. Details were not released, but it would begin with an immediate halt to the fighting to allow in much-needed humanitarian aid followed by talks to resolve the conflict involving both Israel and Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza.

Israel responded by announcing a three-hour daily halt to the bombing to allow a “humanitarian corridor” for aid supplies. It will start at 1pm local time (1100 GMT).

The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, will today discuss with his cabinet the proposed ceasefire as well as a plan to escalate the conflict by sending Israeli forces into the built-up areas of Gaza, despite the rapidly mounting death toll.

Israel has sent thousands of troops and tanks into the Palestinian territory, where they have been locked in heavy fighting, and continues with intensive artillery strikes from land and sea, as well as aerial bombing.

Today’s meeting comes after the deadliest day of fighting yesterday, in which more than 50 Palestinian civilians were killed when Israeli forces bombed two UN schools and several houses. Among the dead was an entire family of seven young children.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general said he was “deeply dismayed” by the killings, which he called “totally unacceptable”. The UN has demanded an impartial investigation.

More than 660 Palestinians have now been killed in Israel’s attack on Gaza, with nearly 3,000 wounded. A total of 10 people have died on the Israeli side: three of them were civilians; four were Israeli soldiers mistakenly targeted by their own troops.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, travelled back to Egypt late yesterday to meet President Hosni Mubarak for another round of discussions, which eventually produced the initiative.

Sarkozy said he had presented the idea to Olmert. “I have good hope that the reaction of Israeli authorities will allow us to imagine an end to the operation they have undertaken in Gaza: that is, not only a ceasefire but a withdrawal,” Sarkozy said.

The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, said she was “pleased” at the initiative, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, gave his support. Abbas had given an emotional appeal for a ceasefire to the UN security council. “Do not let one more Palestinian mother cry for her children. Do not allow it. Put an end to the massacre of my people. Let my people live, and let my people be free,” he said.

Israel has yet to respond to the proposal but has been insisting in recent days that any deal must prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza across the Egyptian border. Overnight, the Israeli military said it had struck 40 sites in Gaza, including what it said were tunnels and rocket-launching sites used by Hamas.

Israeli officials have denied there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza despite mounting evidence to the contrary from the UN and the world’s leading aid agencies.

Israel continues to ban journalists from entering Gaza to report on the killings.