The UN Security Council has called for an immediate end to all violence in Gaza after fresh Israeli air strikes against Palestinian targets have brought the death toll to more than 270 people.
The air strikes are in response to rocket and mortar attacks fire by Palestinian militants against Israel.
After four hours of talks discussions, the council released a statement saying: “The members of the Security Council expressed serious concern at the escalation of the situation in Gaza and called for an immediate halt to all violence.
“The members called on the parties to stop immediately all military activities.”
The statement also called on all parties to address “the serious humanitarian and economic needs in Gaza.”
It urged them to take necessary measures, including the opening of border crossings, to ensure Gaza’s people were supplied with food, fuel and medical treatment.
Palestinian officials said that 271 Palestinians had been killed in 24 hours of Israeli attacks in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Since the operation began, one Israeli had been killed by Palestinian rocket fire.
The Security Council meeting was convened at the request of Libya, the only Arab country on the council.
At least 200 Palestinians were killed earlier on Saturday after Israel launched the heaviest air strikes ever seen in the Gaza Strip, hitting scores of targets linked to the militant Islamist movement, Hamas.
The human toll ranks among the highest for a single day in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
This day of bloodshed ended any hope of immediate progress in the peace process.
While Israel had been warning for days of action against Gaza’s militants, the scale and intensity of the attack, code-named Operation Cast Lead, was unexpected.
For the first time, Israel has attacked not just militants ordering or taking part in operations but members of the security forces and any buildings connected with them.
Every known police station, arms store and headquarters building in Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas since June 2007, was attacked, regardless of whether they were occupied. A passing out ceremony for new police officers was struck, killing around 40 cadets.
Nightmarish scenes were played out through as mangled bodies arrived at hospitals to be collected by grief-stricken relatives. Israeli sources said that 50 targets were struck by 60 jet fighters in the first raid, beginning at around 11.40am. A second wave then attacked militants attempting to retaliate by launching rockets at Israel.
After nightfall, still more air attacks were reported in the south of the Gaza, this time against a metal foundry. But militants fired at least 40 rockets at Israel, including one that hit a house in the town of Netivot, killing one man.
Witnesses said men were killed in the east of Gaza City while they were preparing to fire rockets towards Israel.
Two other Palestinians were wounded in the attack, while another man wounded in an earlier Israeli air strike died of his injuries, according to a medical source.
Locals said that Israeli helicopters also fired missiles late Saturday on four metals factories in the city. Israel says such factories are used to build or store rockets for firing on the Jewish state.
A new Israeli army toll late Saturday said that more than 70 rockets or mortar shells were fired against Israel in response to Saturday’s massive air strikes, killing one and injuring four people.
A Hamas spokesman warned that the militant group would “unleash hell” in response to the strikes.
Meanwhile, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, warned that air attacks would continue until the threat of militants firing rockets into Israel had been dealt with once and for all. “The operation will go on and be intensified as long as necessary,” said Mr Barak. “The battle will be long and difficult, but the time has come to act and to fight.”
Other Israeli officials made clear the operation was not over and gave warning of continuous attacks.
Nine Israeli civilians have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza since it withdrew all settlers and soldiers from the territory in September 2005.
Over the same period, at least 1,400 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces in Gaza, according to figures compiled by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group.
Israel’s decision to act came after a six-month truce with Hamas, which ran out on Dec 19.
With a general election due in February, Israel’s leadership did not want to give any appearance of appeasing Hamas. When the rocket fire against Israeli towns resumed, they went for the military option.
A ground invasion was ruled out because of fears of Israeli casualties. The national security cabinet ordered an unprecedented air assault.
Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian national authority, who is based not in Gaza but in the West Bank, condemned the assault as “criminal” and called for the international community to intervene.
Gordon Brown expressed “deep concern”, calling on Hamas to stop rocket attacks and Israel to “meet its humanitarian obligations” and “do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties”.
The Prime Minister added: “There is a pre-eminent need for renewal of a comprehensive settlement for the Israel-Palestine dispute in 2009.” Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief, called for an immediate ceasefire and urged “everybody to exert maximum restraint”.
Egypt condemned the Israeli raids and opened its border with Gaza to allow casualties to be treated inside its hospitals.
A White House spokesman appeared to place greater blame on Hamas. “Hamas’s continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop,” said Gordon Johndroe. But he added that Israel should “avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza.”
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, said he was “deeply alarmed” by Israel’s air attack and appealed “for an immediate halt to all violence”.
Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, pointed to the constant rocket attacks launched by Palestinian militants in Gaza at civilian targets.
“Israeli citizens have been under the threat of daily attack from Gaza for years. Only this week – hundreds of missiles and mortars shells were fired at Israeli civilian communities including the firing of 80 missiles on a single day,” she said.
“Until now, we have shown restraint. But today there is no other option than a military operation. We need to protect our citizens from attack through a military response against the terror infrastructure in Gaza. This is the translation of our basic right to self defence.”
Miss Livni asked for the support of Israel’s allies for an operation she defended as necessary to safeguard civilians against the threat of rocket attacks carried out by Hamas operatives.
“Israel expects the support and understanding of the international community, as it confronts terror, and advances the interest of all those who wish the forces of peace and coexistence to determine the agenda of this region,” she said.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it evacuated all its settlers and dismantled their homes. The government believes this was an essential gesture of goodwill and a demonstration of its commitment to the two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
Israel has accused Hamas of squandering its opportunity by allowing rocket attacks to take place from Gaza, especially after its capture of the territory last year.
Thousands of Israelis have fled areas near to Gaza.