Pause in Violence Israel Halts Offensive to Allow Aid into Gaza

Israel Wednesday halted military operations in the Gaza Strip for three hours to allow aid into the territory. Meanwhile European politicians, including Germany's Angela Merkel, have called for a cease-fire amid increasing concern for the humanitarian situation.

Amid growing calls for an end to the violence in the Gaza Strip, Israel on Wednesday halted its military operations against the militant Islamist group Hamas for three hours to allow humanitarian aid into the Palestinian territory, which has been virtually sealed off from the outside world since Israeli air strikes began on Dec. 27.

An Israeli military spokesman told the Associated Press that the pause in operations, which Israel is calling a "humanitarian corridor," would last from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. local time and was aimed at letting in supplies and fuel. Similar lulls would be considered in the coming days, he said. Gaza residents said that the level of fighting had appeared to drop after the lull went into effect, even if there was still scattered gunfire and explosions, AP reported.

Meanwhile, calls from German and European leaders for a halt to the fighting are increasing amid growing concerns over the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Berlin Wednesday that a way out of the violence must be found as quickly as possible. The aim must be to achieve a lasting cease-fire that guarantees security for both Israelis and Palestinians, he said. He welcomed the Israeli announcement that it would create humanitarian corridors for aid deliveries and also welcomed a truce proposal drawn up by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy which calls for an immediate cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. The plan has been backed by the United Nations and the United States.

Calls for a Cease-Fire

The Czech Republic, which currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, also said in a statement Wednesday it was deeply concerned by the rising number of civilian casualties in Gaza. "We continue to call on both sides to immediately implement a comprehensive ceasefire to ease the suffering of civilians in both Israel and Gaza," the statement read.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also called for a cessation of the violence. She telephoned the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President George W. Bush on Tuesday, Merkel's spokesman told the press in Berlin. The German leader is in agreement with both Erdogan and Bush "that given the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, every effort must be made to find a political and diplomatic solution." Turkey, which has good ties to both the Arab world and Israel, has also been working to help broker a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip.

According to her spokesman, Merkel said that the situation in Gaza, particularly for the civilian population, could only be improved through a cease-fire, which would also provide security for Israel in the long term. She called for an immediate end to the Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and a crackdown on weapon smuggling into the Palestinian region. She did not rule out international steps to stop weapons smuggling into the area. She also said that Israel should carry out a controlled opening of its border crossing points with the Gaza Strip so that humanitarian aid could be delivered to the population. This was a precondition for a sustainable cease-fire, she said.

However, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung Tuesday defended the Israeli offensive and said that a rejection of violence on the part of Hamas would be necessary before Israel would agree to a cease-fire. "I am sure that when Hamas convincingly rejects violence, then Israel will be open to a cease-fire," he said.

Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also weighed in. "The EU's current chaotic efforts should make us all blush with embarrassment," he told the German newspaper Die Zeit, referring to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's diplomatic efforts which are taking place in parallel to those of an official delegation of the European Union, which visited Israel this week. "We Europeans are making ourselves look ridiculous," Fischer said. "It is a diplomatic flea circus."

The diplomatic efforts are in response to increasing concern about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. There was outrage Tuesday after an Israeli attack on a UN-run school building, which was being used to shelter Palestinians who had left their homes out of fear of air strikes. The attack killed 40 people, according to UN officials. Israel claimed Hamas militants had fired mortars from inside the building, a claim the United Nation's Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) disputes. The UNWRA is calling for an "impartial investigation" into the attack.

A total of 130 people died on Tuesday, according to media reports. Israel launched 40 air strikes into Gaza overnight. According to Israeli media reports, nine rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel early on Wednesday.

The Palestinian death toll in the Israeli offensive, which began on Dec. 27 in a bid to stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel, is believed to now be over 600, including as many as 300 civilians. However casualty figures cannot be verified as Israel is refusing to allow the international press into Gaza.

dgs -- with wire reports


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