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.