ASHKELON, Israel - Israeli soldiers were poised Thursday to launch a Gaza Strip ground offensive as their political leadership appeared divided over how to bring the devastating six-day-old military campaign against Hamas to an end.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed to use an "iron fist" to pummel Hamas militants and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni politely rebuffed French efforts to broker a truce that might make a ground offensive unnecessary.
While the tentative diplomatic initiative stalled, Israel targeted a top Hamas military mastermind with an air strike that killed the hard-line leader and 13 members of his family.
More than 400 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli air strikes that are taking an increasing toll on civilians. According to the Hamas-led Ministry of Health in Gaza, the latest Israeli attacks have killed 11 children and six women since Wednesday.
Never miss a local story.
In all, United Nations workers and Palestinian human rights groups estimate, more than 100 Palestinian civilians - one quarter of all the deaths - have been killed by Israeli strikes thus far.
As rockets fired by Gaza Strip militants sent people nearby scrambling for cover in the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon, the country's deputy prime minister said the fighting had reached "the end of the beginning" and endorsed the idea of sending international forces into oversee any truce with Hamas.
"We have to find a way that this war will end while Hamas is not exclusively controlling the area," said Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who is among a minority of Israeli cabinet ministers to call for the military operation to bring Hamas rule of Gaza to an end.
Harkening back to a United Nations deal that brought Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon to an end, Ramon suggested that international peacekeepers be sent into Gaza to oversee any future truce with Hamas.
But Olmert aides dismissed the idea and said it was too early to consider how the fighting might end.
"It's all very fluid," said Olmert spokesman Mark Regev. "We're not there yet."
On a visit Thursday to a southern Israeli city recently hit by more-advanced Palestinian rockets, Olmert said the military was doing all it could to avoid civilian casualties.
"We will treat the population with silk gloves, but will apply an iron fist to Hamas," said Olmert.
But the Israeli air campaign took a high civilian toll on Thursday when it targeted Nizar Rayan, considered a leading Hamas military strategist, while he was home with his family.
The attack killed Rayan, all four of his wives, and at least nine of his 12 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
Rayan, who dispatched one of his sons on a 2001 suicide bombing attack that killed two Israeli settlers in Gaza, was among the few Hamas leaders who had not gone into hiding.
An Israeli military official who spoke on a condition of anonymity said that Rayan's family had been warned to get out of the house minutes before the attack, but did not say how they were told of the imminent strike.
In other attacks over the past six days, Israeli intelligence has called Palestinians on their cell phones to warn them to leave a targeted building immediately.
Rayan is the most prominent Hamas leader to be killed in the Israeli campaign that has already devastated hundreds of Gaza Strip buildings, including government offices, the Palestinian Authority's Gaza City parliament, and mosques the Israeli army claimed were used to store weapons.
With warm weather drying southern Israel after several days of rain, soldiers worked on tanks, artillery units and armored vehicles that could be used in the next stage of the military campaign.
Israeli leaders have said the strikes will come to a halt when Gaza militants stop firing rockets into southern Israel. Gaza militants have fired hundreds of crude rockets since Saturday, killing four Israelis.
Rocket fire dropped off dramatically in June when Hamas and Israel agreed to a six-month cease-fire. But it never stopped completely, and the truce crumbled in early November when Israeli ground forces broke the deal for the first time. At the time, the Israeli officials said it was forced to send in troops to destroy a tunnel the military claimed was set to be used in an impending attack.
Israeli leaders say the primary goal of the ongoing military campaign is not to topple Hamas, but to bring rocket fire to a halt.
Vice Premier Ramon has been among those pushing his government to bring down Hamas, which seized military control of the Gaza Strip during a bloody June, 2007 military showdown with fighters loyal to pragmatic Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We need a change," Ramon told reporters in Ashkelon shortly before a volley of rockets peppered the city. "In my eyes, a change is that Hamas is not dominating exclusively the Gaza Strip."
Ramon prodded the Arab world to step in and do more.
"The Arab League, they are concerned about what is happening in Gaza, and I am concerned as well," said Ramon. "Send in an Arab force that will take over."
The idea is likely to get a cool reception in the moderate Middle East, where most nations would probably be reticent to openly cooperate with Israel by using their soldiers to try and contain Hamas.
Diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting have yet to gain traction.
Meeting in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Foreign Minister Livni made it clear that Israel does not support a temporary lull in the fighting and plans to press on with the military attacks.
Sarkozy, who is expected to come to the Middle East early next week to continue his diplomatic push, has suggested a 48-hour cease-fire.
But Livni carried a clear message that Israel is not ready yet to talk about stopping the fighting until Hamas stops firing rockets - something the Islamist militants refuse to do.
"Even when we accept something in order to have a peaceful period of time, they abuse it in order to get stronger and to attack Israel later on," said after meeting the French president.
Special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda contributed to this report from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY