By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Thursday Israel was fighting Hamas with an "iron fist," his words backed by more Gaza air strikes but challenged by rocket fire that continued to hit Israeli cities.
Shortly after Olmert spoke to local government leaders in southern Israel, footage of a multi-storey building damaged in an attack and a rubble-strewn street filled Israeli television screens.
This time, the scene was the not the battered Gaza Strip, rather a tree-lined street in Ashdod, a major Israeli port city, where a Hamas rocket had torn into the eighth floor of a residential building.
No one was hurt but several residents were treated for shock, officials said. Some 20 rockets hit elsewhere in southern Israel, causing no casualties.
In fresh raids on the sixth day of hostilities, Israeli aircraft and naval forces attacked about 20 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, including a government complex, Israeli military officials said.
Palestinian medical officials said three civilians were killed and 100 people wounded.
"We have no interest in waging a long war," Olmert said, repeating Israel's declared goal of ending rocket attacks in the Gaza Strip and giving no precise timeframe for the offensive.
"We didn't declare war on the residents of Gaza, but against Hamas we will act with an iron fist," Olmert said in Beersheba, the city Israel regards as the capital of its southern Negev region, and where a rocket slammed into an empty school on Wednesday.
Israeli tanks and troops were massed near the border of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and the Haaretz newspaper reported the Israeli army had recommended a major but short-term ground offensive into the densely populated enclave.
Diplomats said the deadliest conflict in the Gaza Strip in four decades could get even bloodier after days of air strikes that have killed at least 399 Palestinians, about a quarter of whom, U.N. figures showed, were civilians, and wounded more than 1,700.
Three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed by rockets from the Gaza Strip since Israel began an air offensive on Saturday.
Foreign pressure grew on both sides to hold their fire but Israel brushed aside as "unrealistic" a French proposal for a 48-hour truce that would allow in more humanitarian aid for Gaza's 1.5 million residents.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session but adjourned without a vote after Arab countries pushed for a demand for an immediate cease-fire. Western delegates described the Arab-drafted resolution as unbalanced and said negotiations would continue to reach an agreed text.
"We should not be disappointed," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in Cairo. "This is a first step in a diplomatic battle that may take several days."
The Czech prime minister, who holds the European Union presidency, said he was planning to organise a diplomatic mission on behalf of the bloc to the Middle East to address the conflict there.
"ONLY THE BEGINNING"
France said it would host Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday and an Israeli official said French President Nicolas Sarkozy planned to visit Jerusalem on Monday.
Israel Radio said Israeli forces massed at the Gaza border were readying for a possible ground offensive.
"This is only the beginning," Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai said on Israel's Army Radio.
"We are operating now, for exactly what we have said from the start, and nothing has changed, to deal Hamas a heavy blow. It has already been wounded." He said Israel would insist on an end to all rocket fire from Gaza.
The Gaza operation, launched after a six-month cease-fire expired on December 19 and Hamas intensified rocket strikes, could affect the outcome of the national election Israel is to hold on February 10.
A poll in the Haaretz daily showed a majority of Israelis, 52 percent, favoured pursuing the attacks in Gaza, with just 20 percent backing calls for a cease-fire, and 19 percent favouring the launch of a ground offensive into Gaza.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Israeli attacks must stop before any truce proposals could be considered. Israel must also lift its economic blockade of Gaza and open border crossings.
"After that it will be possible to talk on all issues without any exception," Haniyeh said in a televised speech.
U.S. President George W. Bush spoke by phone to Olmert, the White House said. Bush put the onus on Hamas to stop firing rockets as a first step to a truce.
Olmert told his security cabinet that if a diplomatic solution could be found that ensured better security for southern Israel, the government would consider it.
"But at the moment, it's not there," an aide quoted Olmert as saying. "We didn't start this operation just to end it with rocket fire continuing as it did before it began."
Israeli ministers approved the mobilisation of 2,500 army reservists, expanding on an earlier call-up of 6,500 soldiers for the force on the Gaza border.
Rain that could impede an armoured invasion largely cleared on Thursday and forecasters predicted clear skies for the next several days.
Food supplies in Gaza were running low and there were power cuts. Hospitals struggled to cope with the high number of casualties from the offensive.
Israel said it would continue to let humanitarian supplies into Gaza and that more than 90 truckloads with food and medicine would be permitted into the territory on Thursday. A similar amount of supplies went in on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Adam Entous and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations, James Mackenzie in Paris and Alaa Shahine in Cairo; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)