A Fragile Cease-Fire in Gaza EU Leaders Pledge Aid and Call for Lasting Peace

The guns have fallen silent for now, but the task of establishing a lasting peace still lies ahead. European leaders gathered in Egypt over the weekend to discuss ways of shoring up the fragile cease-fire, including pledges of technical and military assistance to stop Hamas from rearming.

A shaky truce has taken hold in the Gaza Strip, but the international community is still working out how to turn it into a permanent peace. After both Israel and Hamas declared unilateral cease-fires over the weekend, European leaders gathered in Egypt on Sunday to discuss ways to both ease the plight of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and to prevent the militant Islamists from re-arming.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the host of the summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik on Sunday, said the three weeks of fighting in Gaza showed the need for a comprehensive deal while French President Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested calling an international conference in the coming weeks to "lay the foundations for a lasting peace."

Mubarak invited the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey and Spain to meet in Egypt at short notice on Sunday as Israel and Hamas separately announced the end to the three weeks of fighting.

Diplomats said the aim of the talks had been to look at ways to consolidate the delicate truce with the Europeans offering military and technical assistance to prevent Hamas from rearming by smuggling weapons into Gaza, perhaps with an international naval force. Delivering humanitarian aid to the 1.4 million people trapped in the devastated territory also emerged as a key goal at the meeting. The participants pledged to press for an end to the blockade which has been imposed on Gaza since June 2007 when Hamas ousted Fatah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's party, from Gaza.

Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, said that the smuggling and the blockade were directly related, with the people of Gaza trying to obtain goods by any means possible. "Stopping the smuggling must be linked to opening the crossing points and ending the blockade," he said.

'Two-State Solution Is Only Possibility'

While the United States, whose President-elect Barack Obama takes office on Tuesday, was notable by its absence, the European visitors said that they were showing a common front to promote lasting peace in the region. "Europe is here in strength and that shows that we want to make our contribution," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Sunday. Speaking to journalists in Egypt, Merkel said that there was no alternative to establishing a Palestinian state. "The two-state solution is the only possibility that we have for creating a lasting peaceful coexistence," she said.

Meanwhile in Berlin, Merkel's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed the latest developments, saying he was "relieved" that Hamas had also stopped fighting. He called on Hamas in particular to "keep their word and stop all attacks." In a statement released on Sunday he said "One thing is clear, even if the rockets no longer fly, the path toward peace is still long."

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency, thanked the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent and other humanitarian relief organizations who "worked to alleviate the suffering of Gazans," and extended his country's "condolences to all those Palestinians who lost family members in the fighting."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that the Middle East peace process had to be put back on track. "This is a failure of the political will at the level of people and leadership," he said on Sunday. "The whole international community, particularly Arab countries, should fully support his process." Ban said he was sending in a humanitarian assessment team to Gaza to find out what is needed there. The offensive the Israelis launched on Dec. 27 lasted 22 days and led to the deaths of as many as 1,300 Palestinians. Ten Israeli soldiers died and three Israeli civilians were killed by rockets launched from the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that the operation was over on Saturday night after winning pledges from Washington and Cairo to help prevent arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip. Although there were some outbreaks of violence on Sunday morning things have been quiet since Hamas announced its own week-long cease-fire to allow the Israeli military to withdraw from the tiny coastal enclave. Medics have taken advantage of the truce to comb the rubble for dead bodies, finding 95 so far.

'An End to the Arms Traffic'

The details of exactly what measures will be taken to try to halt the smuggling of arms into Gaza were still being ironed out. With Egypt still refusing to allow international monitors to be deployed on its side of the Gaza border, European leaders spoke of the possibility sending forces to patrol from the sea instead. "We must put an end to the arms traffic," President Sarkozy said in Sharm el-Sheik on Sunday. "Several of our countries have proposed to make available to Israel and Egypt all the technical, diplomatic and military -- notably naval -- means to help stop weapons smuggling into Gaza."

Preventing Hamas from rearming is a key demand of Israel, which launched its three-week offensive to stop the Islamic militants from firing rockets into southern Israel. Yet the militants who rule Gaza remain defiant, vowing to rearm. "Do whatever you want. Manufacturing the holy weapons is our mission and we know how to acquire weapons," Abu Ubaida, spokesman for Hamas' armed wing, told a news conference on Monday.

And Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader and former Palestinian prime minister, claimed victory at the end of the 22-day conflict, saying in a speech, that "God has granted us a great victory, not for one faction, or party, or area, but for our entire people."

"We have stopped the aggression and the enemy has failed to achieve any of its goals," he said.

While the international community prepares to deliver much needed humanitarian aid, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that his country would also help transport injured children to hospitals in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. "Today, humanitarian tragedy must not just be met by sympathy but by the immediate mobilization of aid," he said. Brown called on Israel to allow full access to humanitarian workers and relief supplies and he also urged them to reopen the crossings "to end Gaza's economic isolation."

Meanwhile the diplomatic wheels keep turning. Cairo has already invited Israeli and Palestinian officials for separate meetings on Thursday to discuss an Egyptian initiative for an extended truce. It was not immediately clear on Monday if the invitations had been accepted.

smd -- with wire reports


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