AS THE bombardment of the Gaza Strip stretched into its fourth day, Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, yesterday announced that he would attempt to broker a ceasefire.
He will visit Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in an attempt to get them to influence the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Hamas prefers mediation by Turkey rather than Egypt, and there are hopes that Mr Erdogan can help to hammer out an accord that would renew a truce.
Under the proposal the crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip would open secured by international guarantees. His mission comes as Israel's deputy Defence Minister, Matan Vilnai, warned that the offensive could take weeks. "We are ready for a prolonged conflict and for weeks of combat," Mr Vilnai said.
Israeli Army radio reported that the defence forces were preparing to expand the Gaza operation. A spokesman, Captain Benjamin Rutland, said he could not elaborate, but said air force jets were continuing to strike targets in Gaza.
"We … still believe that Hamas has a large number of rockets," Captain Rutland said.
Thousands of Israeli troops have massed along the border with Gaza, which Israel has declared a "closed military zone".
Palestinian media reports said that attacks from the air and sea early yesterday had killed at least 10 people, and hit several government buildings including Hamas headquarters, and a car carrying rockets. Two sisters, 4 and 11, were among the casualties, Palestinian medical sources said.
The United Nations yesterday put the death toll inside Gaza at 363, including 42 children and 1750 wounded. A spokesman for the International Red Cross told the Herald that medical facilities in Gaza had been overwhelmed.
Hamas rockets killed three Israelis on Monday, including an Israeli soldier.
Israeli and Palestinian media have reported that Hamas is seeking a ceasefire. The Jerusalem Arabic newspaper Al-Quds carried a report that Hamas's political leader in Damascus, Khaled Meshal, was ready to accept a truce - although the newspaper said the Hamas leadership in Gaza denied this.
Israeli Army radio reported that the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, had presented the leaders of Turkey on Monday night with a formulation drawn up by Cairo for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. Turkey has been acting as mediator between Israel and Syria since the start of the year.
European leaders were expected to present a proposal yesterday aimed at forcing a ceasefire on Israel and Hamas at an emergency session of the European Union's foreign ministers in Paris.
Yuval Diskin, the director of Israel's internal security agency, Shin Bet, told Monday night's briefing of the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, that Hamas had begun to ask for a ceasefire through several other intermediaries.
Mr Olmert also reportedly told the meeting that he drew comfort from the fact that there was no inordinate international pressure on Israel, most world leaders appreciating "Israel's restraint before the operation and displaying understanding for it".
Late on Monday he said there was no timeline to end the military operation, but that Israel would ensure humanitarian aid reached Gaza.
About 100 trucks loaded with aid were expected to enter the Gaza Strip yesterday. A number of ambulances were also expected to be let in. Wounded Palestinians began crossing through the Rafah border post with Egypt on Monday.