NEW YORK // Arab diplomats stepped up pressure on UN Security Council members to adopt a draft resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza yesterday as envoys from Israel arrived in Cairo for negotiations involving the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Speaking to reporters before meeting western leaders, the Arab League's secretary general, Amr Moussa, demanded council members live up to their responsibilities and agree to the Arab bloc's draft resolution.
The US has objected to the document, which demands an "immediate and permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip", the lifting of Israel's border blockade and the establishment of an international force to monitor the truce. Fervent diplomatic activity at UN headquarters involving Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, was expected to result in western permanent council members presenting an alternative draft resolution.
While Arab leaders are demanding an end to the 14-day offensive into Palestinian territory, the US is emphasising Israeli demands for an end to Hamas rocket attacks on its southern towns and cities. Speaking with reporters after closed-door meetings yesterday morning, Ms Rice said diplomats were "making progress" but that there was "still work to do" before a consensus emerged between Arab and western diplomats. During a flurry of negotiations in the basement of UN headquarters, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Foreign Minister, told The National that the chances of reaching an accord "look good". Insiders have argued that diplomatic wrangling in midtown Manhattan is buying time for the Israelis to achieve their military goals in Gaza, while the Palestinian death toll climbed above 700, according to the territory's health ministry. Israeli air and ground strikes resulted in fresh casualties and pushed the estimated number of wounded above 3,000, as the coastal strip's 1.5 million people sunk deeper into a humanitarian crisis. At least 11 Israelis have been killed, including eight soldiers. As negotiations were taking place in New York, Israeli representatives arrived in Cairo for Egyptian-brokered talks on a ceasefire proposal that will also involve delegates from the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defence ministry official, and Shalom Turjeman, a top aide to Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, arrived to discuss what Egypt's official news agency described as "the basic details on how to implement" a truce. Speaking outside the Security Council chamber, Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said there would be no face-to-face meeting between officials from Israel's government and Hamas, whose arrival date in Cairo remains uncertain. Mr Aboul Gheit said Egypt would ask Israel and Hamas for a temporary truce "that would lead to a consolidated permanent ceasefire" before proceeding to further negotiations with the EU and the Palestinian Authority. Ms Rice has applauded the Egyptian-French ceasefire proposal and said she had talked with both the Israelis and Arab envoys about "the importance of moving that initiative forward". The plan, initiated by Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, and his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, covers an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, international monitors, the lifting of border blockades and the prevention of future Hamas arms supplies. Israel's government has said it views the proposal positively but stopped short of acceptance. The Jewish state says it began bombarding Gaza with aircraft and missile attacks on Dec 27 in response to Hamas rocket attacks. Israel insists that any ceasefire agreement must ensure Hamas is unable to rearm, claiming that weapons are smuggled into Gaza through a network of hundreds of tunnels along the Egyptian border. An official from Hamas, which took control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in June 2007, said it had not decided whether to accept or reject the Egyptian plan, but added that the grassroots Islamic group felt the proposal favoured Israel. Delegates were under greater pressure to reach an agreement after the main aid provider in the territory, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) suspended food delivery operations yesterday after Israeli strikes killed two of its drivers. In a statement from his spokesman, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, condemned the Israeli attacks that have now caused the deaths of four UNRWA workers, together with shelling near a UN-run school that killed 40 people earlier this week. "The secretary general calls once again for an immediate ceasefire in order to facilitate full and unhindered humanitarian access, and to allow aid workers to work in safety to reach persons in need," the statement said. "The inability of the UN to provide assistance in this worsening humanitarian crisis is unacceptable." firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press