On visit, Israeli foreign minister is greeted by Hamas rockets

SDEROT, Israel — Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's convoy had just pulled into Sderot Wednesday afternoon when the warning of incoming rocket fire from Gaza crackled from the town's loudspeakers.

"Red color, red color," said the dull Hebrew voice so familiar to residents who know when they hear it that they have about 15 seconds to seek shelter. Livni and her aides were already indoors, but journalists who'd come to cover her appearance along with residents and soldiers rushed for cover in a nearby building.

The crude rocket landed with a muffled thud somewhere nearby, and a few minutes later, Livni began her briefing on Israel's five-day-old campaign to destabilize Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, and bring these kinds of attacks to a halt.

Livni had come to Sderot, the single most targeted town in the Hamas rocket attacks, prior to traveling to France to brief European leaders on the necessity for the Israeli military campaign. "Terror cannot work," she told reporters. She said Israel couldn't allow an outcome for Hamas "that even can be perceived as a victory."

With the U.S. alone publicly backing Israel, Livni is now at the forefront of the public relations campaign to persuade the international community that Israel needs more time to cripple Hamas before it halts the operation.

Nearly 400 Palestinians, including an estimated 90 civilians, have been killed and 1,800 have been wounded since Israel launched the air strikes on Saturday. Israel's military now is poised to send thousands of soldiers into Gaza in the next phase of the campaign.

As expected, Israel's top leaders on Wednesday formally rebuffed the proposal first floated by France for a 48-hour truce to ease the humanitarian emergency affecting the 1.5 million Palestinians living under Hamas rule in Gaza. The truce proposal, also backed by the European Union, might avert an Israeli ground offensive.

The Bush administration defended the Israeli position.

"President Bush thinks that Hamas needs to stop firing rockets, and that this will be the first step in a cease-fire," White House deputy press secretary Gordon Johndroe told reporters in Crawford, Texas, after Bush spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"We have to expect the worst," said Emad Falah, a 36-year-old Palestinian Authority interpreter who's been holed up in his Gaza City apartment with his wife and four young boys since the bombardment started. "This will be very severe and very scary."

Rainy weather put a slight damper on Israeli air strikes, but the Israeli Air Force pressed ahead Wednesday by hitting a mosque the military claimed was being used to store weapons.

Hamas leaders in Gaza, most of whom are in hiding, have vowed to keep firing rockets into Israel until the Israeli military offensive comes to an end.

On Wednesday, dozens of Gaza rockets hit southern Israeli towns such as Sderot and Ashkelon.

Livni toured a Beersheba school that was hit by one of five more-advanced rockets fired by Palestinian militants on the city of 180,000 about 28 miles from the Gaza Strip border.

Since Saturday, Palestinian rockets have killed four Israelis and the strikes have hit an increasing number of cities farther from Gaza.

Israel's newspapers were filled with toughening language.

"Israel decides to push on with Gaza op until 'all goals are reached,'" the Haaretz newspaper heralded on its Web site.

"Gloves are off,' said one headline on Yedioth Ahronoth Web site.

(Special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda contributed to this article from Gaza City.)


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