World leaders continue their frantic efforts to pressure Hamas and Israel to accept ceasefire terms.
Franco-Egyptian proposal wins cautious backing from US and UN
NEW YORK // World leaders continued their frantic efforts to pressure Hamas and Israel to accept ceasefire terms yesterday as military operations in the devastated Gaza Strip resulted in further bloodshed. A brief lull in the fighting yesterday morning as Israel allowed medical and other supplies into the territory was followed by fresh attacks that saw the Palestinian death toll climb towards 700.
Foreign ministers from the United States, Europe and Arab world continued a marathon two-day diplomatic session at UN headquarters in New York with dozens of speakers in the Security Council calling for peace. In the Middle East, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, and his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, presented their own ceasefire strategy, which has won cautious backing from the United States, the Arab League and the UN. Mr Mubarak said Egypt "invites the Israelis and Palestinians for an urgent meeting to reach arrangements and guarantees that would not allow the repeat of the current escalation".
The Egyptian leader proposed an immediate ceasefire, talks between Palestinians and Israelis, and the opening of borders to end the siege that has seen Gaza residents endure a deepening humanitarian crisis. The plan would see international monitors brought in to ensure peace, while providing Israel with guarantees that Hamas would no longer be able to launch rocket attacks against its southern towns and cities. An Israeli government spokesman welcomed the Franco-Egyptian initiative in principle, but stopped short of saying whether his government accepted it as a basis on which to end the Gaza offensive. "Israel thanks the Egyptian president and the French president for their efforts to advance the solution to end the terrorist activity from Gaza and stop weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza," Mark Regev said. "Israel sees positively the dialogue between Egyptians and Israelis in order to advance these issues." The government later said it would dispatch a defence ministry official, Amos Gilad, and Shalom Turgeman, a political adviser to the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to Cairo in coming days to discuss the truce proposal. Israel yesterday set up a "humanitarian corridor" to allow aid to reach Gaza's beleaguered 1.5 million people, and promised to halt air strikes for three hours each day to allow assistance to be distributed. Hamas, which controls Gaza, has agreed to study the Sarkozy-Mubarak plan, which would see a renewal of a failed truce between Israel and Palestinian factions and a reinforcement of controls on arms-smuggling from Egypt. Israel insists on guarantees that Hamas and other militants will not be able to rearm. Israel said the rockets that Palestinian militants fire at the Jewish state are smuggled in through hundreds of tunnels along the Egyptian border. Mr Sarkozy yesterday hailed what he described as Israel and the Palestinian Authority's "acceptance of a Franco-Egyptian plan" for a ceasefire. "The head of state called for this plan to be put in place as quickly as possible in order to halt the suffering of the population," Mr Sarkozy's office said in a statement after the French leader returned from Egypt. During his whirlwind tour of the Middle East, Mr Sarkozy further urged Syria, which, along with Iran, backs Hamas, to convince Gaza's hardline leadership "to choose the voice of reason and peace". Israel began pounding Gaza with aircraft and missile attacks on Dec 27, launching a controversial ground invasion on Saturday that has caused substantial civilian casualties and drawn international criticism. A UN official said an artillery attack near Al Fakhoura School in the Jabaliya refugee camp saw 30 Palestinians killed and 50 injured on Tuesday, including women and children, who had been sheltering from the violence. In his Security Council address, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, condemned the "excessive use of force by Israel" and described attacks on UN-run schools as "unacceptable", while also criticising the "indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas". Gabriela Shalev, Israel's ambassador to the UN, defended her country's action to the 15-nation body, saying Israeli citizens had "suffered the trauma" of more than 8,000 Hamas missile attacks over eight years. "Hamas has no interest in making peace with the enemy," Ms Shalev told delegates. "For Hamas, peace is the enemy. Its only interest is in establishing a regime of tyranny for Gazans and of terror for Israelis." Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, accompanied Arab League delegates to New York seeking a Security Council resolution calling for an end to violence that "compliments" the Franco-Egyptian proposal. But negotiations in Manhattan were marred by disagreements among world powers, with insiders criticising the United States for allowing Israel to achieve its military goals by stalling diplomatic efforts. Prince Faisal blasted the Security Council for failing to achieve its prime function of maintaining world peace and security, while warning that Israel's military would not be able to rid Gaza of Hamas. "Nobody can eliminate anybody through war - and that is the danger of entering into a conflict like this," the Saudi envoy told reporters. "The real suffering is not felt by those aimed at, those supposed to be the malfeasants, the tragedy is felt by the innocents." Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, warned council members that a short-lived truce would be "unacceptable" and called for a firmly negotiated ceasefire that would bring "real security". She called for "a period of true calm that includes an end to rocket, mortar and other attacks on Israelis, and allows for the cessation of Israel's military offensive". "It must include also an end to the smuggling into Gaza and a reopening of crossings so that Palestinians can benefit from humanitarian goods and basic supplies," she added. In Washington, the president-elect, Barack Obama, finally broke his silence on the situation in Gaza and said his administration would "immediately" engage in the Middle East after his inauguration. He defended his unwillingness to get involved before then. Mr Obama expressed deep concern about the situation in Gaza, as international efforts went on to halt the conflict, and said he was being fully briefed on events. "I am doing everything that we have to do to make sure that - that the day that I take office, we are prepared to engage immediately in trying to deal with the situation there," Mr Obama said. A Libyan-backed resolution calling for a ceasefire was presented to council members on Saturday, but was blocked by the United States on the grounds that it was unlikely to result in an end to Hamas rocket attacks. Security Council members were not expected to vote on the resolution yesterday, but work continued on drafting a presidential statement that was expected to support the Franco-Egyptian plan. firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters