Diplomats say Gaza agreement could take several days

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — With more civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip, diplomats accelerated efforts on two tracks Tuesday in search of a formula to end the fighting between Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

International support appeared to be growing for a cease-fire that would be accompanied by an international monitoring force and other measures intended to stop the flow of smuggled weapons into Gaza, as Israel has demanded.

U.S., European and Middle Eastern diplomats cautioned, however, that the details are far from settled, and it could be several days or longer before a cease-fire is reached.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, which borders Gaza, announced a three-part proposal that would begin with an immediate, temporary cease-fire.

Mubarak would then mediate follow-on talks between Israel and Palestinians over securing Gaza's borders, and between rival Palestinian factions. He laid out his proposal during talks in the resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in New York to meet with counterparts at the United Nations, welcomed the initiative, as did the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

"We need urgently to conclude a cease-fire that can endure and that can bring real security," Rice told an evening meeting of the U.N. Security Council. "We are pleased by and wish to commend the statement of the president of Egypt and to follow up on that initiative."

There was no immediate reaction from Israel, which has refused to halt an offensive begun in response to Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel without a long-term solution to the problem.

Diplomats from several countries, speaking on condition of anonymity because no agreement has been reached, said several ideas were being discussed to secure Egypt's border with Gaza.

They include an international monitoring force; technical security assistance to the Egyptian government; and the return of border guards from the Palestinian Authority, Hamas's rival, which Hamas fighters ejected from Gaza in June 2007. How the latter could be accomplished, however, is unclear.

Israeli officials wouldn't openly discuss specific cease-fire proposals. One official, however, said Tuesday that Israel would be open to an international monitoring force so long as it had a mandate to stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

Israeli leaders have often said that a beefed-up U.N. monitoring force sent to southern Lebanon following the 2006 war there hasn't done enough to prevent another Israeli adversary, Hezbollah, from rearming. However, the official said that it's at least required Hezbollah to keep "an exceedingly low profile."

"We want something robust, something real," the official said. "Hamas is not yet Hezbollah, and we would like to avoid arriving at that stage."

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez expelled Israel's ambassador on Tuesday to protest the Gaza military offensive. Venezuela is believed to be the first country to kick out an Israeli ambassador.

The military campaign earlier prompted Chavez, a longtime critic of Israel who's established warm ties with Iran, to condemn the Israeli government as "murderers."

(Shashank Bengali contributed to this article from Jerusalem.)

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