Egypt and France propose plan to end Gaza conflict
By EDITH M. LEDERER,Associated Press Writer AP - 2 hours 22 minutes ago
UNITED NATIONS - A cease-fire initiative Tuesday to halt the increasingly bloody Israeli offensive in Hamas-rule Gaza won support from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on rival sides to follow up on the proposal.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the initiative seeks an immediate cease-fire by Israel and Palestinian factions for a specific period to allow secure corridors for delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza and give Egypt time to continue efforts to reach a permanent cease-fire.
Egypt is inviting the warring Israeli and Palestinian sides for urgent meetings to resolve issues underlying the fighting, including securing Gaza's borders, reopening all crossings and lifting the Israeli "siege," Mubarak said.
The U.N. Security Council held a high-level emergency meeting late Tuesday as international pressure mounted for an end to the 11-day Israeli offensive in Gaza that has killed nearly 600 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, and injured at least 2,500, according to U.N. and Palestinian officials.
Israel says it launched the air and ground attack to end Hamas rocketing that has traumatized southern Israel. Hamas, a militant Islamic group which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist organization, wrested control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in June 2007.
At Tuesday's four hour council meeting, virtually every Arab speaker denounced the Security Council's failure to adopt a legally binding resolution to stop the Israeli offensive and demand a durable cease-fire.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the council's "deafening silence" placed "a big question mark" over its credibility "and the entire system of international security."
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said the Egyptian and French presidents launched their initiative, which the league's 22 members support, because of the council's procrastination.
"We do not see any contradiction between that initiative and the work of the Security Council," he said. "In fact, they both complement each other ... since our objective is the same."
To try to spur speedy council action, Libya formally circulated a revised Arab draft resolution Tuesday that, in party, calls for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces and the opening of all crossings into Gaza.
But the draft makes no mention of a key U.S. and Israeli demand _ for border monitors to destroy tunnels that Hamas has used to smuggle arms since seizing control of Gaza. In fact, it never mentions Hamas by name.
The Security Council scheduled another meeting Wednesday morning.
Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit read Mubarak's statement in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt to the council.
Mubarak also renewed Egypt's invitation to the Palestinian Authority and all Palestinian factions to try again to achieve "Palestinian reconciliation," a move considered essential for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Egyptian president said the Israelis and Palestinians should also be willing to discuss border security and other issues that led to the conflict with the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers which includes the U.N., the U.S., the European Union and Russia.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters at a joint news conference with in Sharm-el-Sheik that he spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to inform him of the initiative.
He said Mubarak invited Israel "to come discuss the question of border security ... (and) that could be in the hours ahead."
"I have good hope that the reaction of Israeli authorities will allow us to imagine an end to the operation they have undertaken in Gaza, that is not only a cease-fire but a withdrawal," Sarkozy said.
At U.N. headquarters, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told members "a halt to violence is the immediate priority."
"We are awaiting the Israeli response and we harbor hope that it will be a positive one," Kouchner said.
Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gabriela Shalev said at U.N. headquarters that Israel takes the Egyptian-French initiative "very, very seriously."
In Jerusalem, Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, told AP: "We are holding off comments on that for the time being."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Security Council that the United States, Israel's closest ally, understands "the urgency of an end to the fighting" and is working around the clock to achieve it.
"In this regard, we are pleased by, and wish to commend, the statement of the president of Egypt and to follow up on that initiative," Rice said.
But she cautioned that any solution must include an end to Hamas rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel, the opening of all borders in Gaza, and an end to arms smuggling into the Palestinian territory.
"I express my support for the plan set in motion today by president Mubarak and president Sarkozy," Abbas told the council.
A Hamas delegate who attended talks Tuesday with Egypt's intelligence chief said Hamas representatives would discuss Mubarak's proposals. He did not want to be named due to the sensitivity of the talks.
Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gabriela Shalev defended the country's military action in Gaza, saying Hamas "has no interest in making peace" and only wants to inflict terror on Israel and "tyranny" in Gaza, where its forces hide among innocent civilians.
Associated Press Writers Rebecca Santana and Salah Nasrawi in Cairo, Mark Lavie in Jerusalem and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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