EU leaders promote ‘lasting peace’ for Gaza

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The leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic took part in a meeting in Egypt on Sunday (18 January), just as Israel initiated a unilateral ceasefire and Hamas declared its own week-long truce on the Gaza Strip.

The talks, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and co-chaired by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, were also attended by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Turkish President Abdullah Gül and King Abdullah II of Jordan. 

Israel declined an invitation to the summit, but on Sunday evening, the Czech EU Presidency delegation and leaders from several other European countries met Israeli officials in Jerusalem. 

In the meantime, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire at 00:00 GMT on Sunday and started withdrawing its forces from Gaza. The radical Palestinian movement Hamas, which controls Gaza, also declared immediate ceasefire. Major clashes were not reported, but Palestinian militants fired about 20 rockets over the border after the Israeli ceasefire announcement, to which Israel responded with an air attack. 

Mubarak and his guests called on the world to ensure the end of fighting in the enclave. 

“This fragile ceasefire has got to be followed immediately, if it is to be sustainable, by humanitarian access which we have asked for, by troop withdrawals, by an end of arms trafficking, by the opening-up of the (frontier) crossings, by the end of rocket attacks, and hopefully by the beginning of serious negotiations that will lead to a final settlement,” said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. 

Monitors to prevent arms smuggling 

Britain indicated that it will use its naval assets in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to prevent arms smuggling by sea and support an earlier initiative to deploy EU monitors in the region (EURACTIV 08/01/09). London also committed to helping to train Palestinian and Egyptian security forces, and offered to help ferry injured Palestinian children to hospitals in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This will involve a brief journey across Israel, which most of the children have never seen. 

“Our first priority, a humanitarian imperative, is to get food and medical treatment to those who so urgently need it […] Israel must allow full access to humanitarian workers, and to relief supplies. We must also end Gaza’s economic isolation by reopening the crossings that link it to the outside world,” Brown said. 

Sarkozy added that France would be willing to provide monitors to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza and supply technology to help locate smuggling tunnels. He also raised the possibility of “a great conference that would make it possible to lay the foundations of a lasting peace”. 

Germany also offered assistance in preventing the smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip. 

“Europe is here in strength and that shows that we want to make our contribution,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, although she added she was also looking to the new US president to play a key role in the Middle East. 

In a possible reference to the US – so conspicuously absent at this critical moment – Sarkozy said “we shall need everyone”. 

In the meantime, the world started to discover the full extent of the devastation in Gaza. Four thousand homes were ruined and tens of thousands of people have been left homeless by the fighting. UN official John Ging said half a million people had been without water since the conflict began, and huge numbers of people were without power. A meeting of the Arab League in Kuwait is expected to discuss a proposal for a $2m fund for the reconstruction in Gaza. 

Hamas wows to rearm 

A masked Hamas leader told journalists in Gaza today that it will rearm, in defiance of any Israeli and international efforts to prevent the situation from deteriorating again.

“Do whatever you want. Manufacturing the holy weapons is our mission and we know how to acquire weapons,” Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, told a news conference. 

(With agencies.) 

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert thanked EU leaders for their commitment to peace in the region. 

"I would like to voice my personal appreciation and the appreciation of the people of Israel to you, the leaders of the states of Europe, for your impressive expression of support for the state of Israel and concern for its security," said Olmert, adding: "If the truce is stable [...] the state of Israel has no intention of staying in the Gaza Strip." 

Olmert also expressed "deep remorse" for civilian casualties. 

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described the operation carried out by Israel in the Gaza Strip as "necessary". 

"There is no democratic state in the world that could concede to this [Hamas rocket attacks] resuming," Berlusconi stressed, appealing to all "free countries" of the world to endorse Israel. He also criticised Hamas, which he defined as a "terrorist organization" which uses innocent citizens as "living shields". 

Last June, Israel and Hamas agreed to a six-month ceasefire. The uneasy calm was periodically violated by armed factions in Gaza, which launched rockets at Israel's border settlements. Israel responded by periodically suspending shipments of supplies into Gaza and closing all border crossing points. In November and early December, Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks before unilaterally announcing the formal end of the truce. The Israeli public and government subsequently gave Defence Minister Ehud Barak freedom to respond. 

Israel launched a land attack on Gaza on 3 January in the framework of its 'Cast Lead' operation, launched on 27 December 2008, targeting Hamas infrastructure in a bid to put an end to rocket attacks by Palestinian militants on Israeli border towns. 

The military operation left over 1,300 Palestinians dead, the majority of them civilians. Some 300 Hamas fighters are believed to have been killed and the majority of the tunnels along the border with Egypt have been destroyed. Thirteen Israelis, ten of whom were military personnel, lost their lives in the fighting. 

The timing of the operation speaks for itself: Israel launched the attack in the final days of George W. Bush's administration and ended it just before Barack Obama's inauguration as the next US president. 

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