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The UN Security Council held a high-level emergency meeting late Tuesday as international pressure mounted for an end to Operation Cast Lead, the IDF offensive in Gaza now entering its 12th day.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Security Council that the United States 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, referring to a cease-fire plan proposed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Rice cautioned, however, 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 Gaza Strip.
"There must be a solution this time that does not allow Hamas to use Gaza as a launching pad against Israeli cities. It has to be a solution that does not allow the rearmament of Hamas, and it must be a solution that finds a way to open crossings so that Palestinians in Gaza can have a normal life," she said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the council that the latest IAF strike on a UN school which reportedly killed 30 and injured 55, was "new proof of the heinous crime being committed against our people."
However, despite the violence, he said, "we remain committed to continuing the political process."
"I express my support for the plan set in motion today by President Mubarak and President Sarkozy," Abbas told the council.
Israel's UN 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.
"We have to defend ourselves," she said. "It is about ensuring the end of terrorism in Gaza, and the end of weapons smuggling into Gaza."
Many Arab speakers denounced the Security Council's failure to adopt a legally binding resolution to stop the fighting.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Israel's "aggression" had created a "hell" in Gaza, and the Security Council's "deafening silence" after 11 days of the conflict is damaging.
"This places a big question mark over the credibility of the Security Council and the entire system of international security," he said. "Destruction is spreading in a way that cannot be justified in any way whatsoever... What is happening now in Gaza can only be described as a horrendous crime."
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told the council that the Mubarak-Sarkozy plan would bring together the main parties, including the Palestinian Authority, to take "all measures" to end the conflict, including the key issues of protecting Gaza's borders and reopening all crossings.
Kouchner said Mubarak and Sarkozy had announced the plan at a press conference.
"We are awaiting the Israeli response and we harbor hope that it will be a positive one," Kouchner said.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev told The Associated Press, "We are holding off comments on that for the time being."
According to Israeli officials, the cease-fire proposal is based on the establishment of an international force to prevent the smuggling of arms from Sinai into Gaza, which would augment a group of US military engineers already on the Egyptian side of the border.
Egypt said on Tuesday night that it was proposing an immediate cease-fire, followed by talks on long-term arrangements for borders and crossings.
Mubarak did not specifically mention Hamas by name, but a Hamas delegate who came to Cairo for talks with the Egyptians Tuesday said the group would take the proposal back to its Damascus, Syria headquarters for discussion. The delegate did not wish to be named, due to the sensitivity of the discussions.
Under the proposal, Israel and Hamas would accept an immediate cease-fire for a limited period, which would allow safe passages to open for humanitarian aid to Gaza and give Egypt time to continue its efforts for a comprehensive and lasting cease-fire, Reuters reported.
Egypt would then invite both Israel and the Palestinian side to an urgent meeting to reach arrangements and guarantees to ensure that the current escalation does not recur. These talks will deal with all the issues at hand, including protecting the border, reopening crossing points and lifting the blockade, it said.
Finally, Egypt would invite the Palestinian Authority and all Palestinian factions to respond to Egyptian efforts to achieve national reconciliation.
Israeli diplomatic officials said a Security Council resolution calling for an end to the fighting, similar to the resolution that put an end to the Second Lebanon War, could only be accepted by Israel if a mechanism to stop arms smuggling was in place.
Olmert, on a tour of the South Tuesday, laid out the principles for an end to Operation Cast Lead.
"It will stop when the conditions that are essential for Israel's security are met," Olmert said. "First and foremost, all terrorist operations against us must stop. The strengthening of the terrorist organizations via the smuggling of war materiel from Egypt into Gaza must also stop."
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office said there was widespread international acceptance of these principles, but that the details of how to do this were very fluid.
Meanwhile, US President-elect Barack Obama said Tuesday he was "deeply concerned" about the loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel, in his first comments on the ongoing hostilities.
He also pledged to engage "effectively and consistently" in trying to resolve Middle East conflicts as soon he takes office on January 20.
"It's not only right for the people in that region. Most importantly, it's right for the national security of the American people and the stability that is so important to this country," he said, in a brief appearance before the press in Washington that focused on the economic crisis.
Obama reiterated his earlier stance that there was only "one president at a time" and that for now US President George W. Bush spoke for the American government and people.
Until his inauguration, he said, he was monitoring the situation and being briefed on developments in the region.
Obama nevertheless stressed that "the loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern for me."
He added that, come January 20, "You will be hearing directly from me and my opinions on this issue."
Already on Saturday, Bush said in his weekly radio address that "there must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end."
Since then the idea has gained a number of other key adherents.
Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair, in an interview with BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, said, "There are circumstances in which we could get an immediate cease-fire," adding that "those circumstances focus very much around clear action to cut off the supply of arms and money through the tunnels that go from Egypt into Gaza."
Blair said the possibility of a cessation of hostilities within the next few days "revolves around a package that is pretty clear to people. I think the Egyptians in principle are prepared to do this, they want to do it, they recognize it's in their own interests as well."
He did not provide any details of what would be included in the package, but there are reports that in addition to US and European military engineers on the Egyptian side of the border, there may also be an international force on the Philadelphi Corridor, and a beefed-up EUBAM force at the Rafah crossing.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who said Tuesday the current fighting marked the "darkest moment" for the Middle East and had to be tackled through international engagement, also said a cease-fire agreement would require "action over the construction of tunnels and arms trafficking into Gaza as well as an end to Israeli military action and rocket attacks by Hamas militants."
Olmert has been in constant contact with Sarkozy, Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the US administration over the proposal.
One Israeli official said the proposed force on the border would most likely not be a UN force similar to UNIFIL in south Lebanon.
"The situation in Lebanon was different," the source said.
"First of all there was already a UNIFIL force there. Secondly, Lebanon is a country, and the conflict was one between two states. Here we are talking about a conflict between a state and a terrorist organization, so the mechanism needs to be different."
In parallel to the US-French-Egyptian efforts to flesh out the details of the mechanism, Cairo has stepped up pressure on the Syria-based Hamas leadership to accept a cease-fire, Egyptian officials close to the negotiations said Tuesday.
The pressure came during talks between Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman and a delegation of the Syria-based Hamas leaders in Cairo.
"The message Hamas is getting [from Suleiman] is that without a cease-fire the Palestinians will be in grave danger and everything they have achieved so far will be gone," one of the Egyptian officials said.
Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said on Monday that Hamas's officials based in Syria - Muhammad Nasr and Imad al-Alami - flew in on Monday to discuss ways to "realize a cease-fire."
"Part of a framework for a cease-fire agreement is to have Israel stop the aggression and pull out. In exchange, we will get the approval of Hamas and other factions" to stop the rockets, Aboul Gheit told Al-Arabiya television.
Muhammad Nazal, from the Damascus-based Hamas leadership, said Tuesday his group was ready to consider a cease-fire "if Israel withdraws its troops, reopens all the crossings to Gaza and lifts its siege on the Strip."
Those comments were no different from Hamas's previous statements, making it unclear if the Egyptian efforts were falling short of their ambitions.
Nazal also said Hamas would not accept international troops in Gaza, though it was ready to accept European monitors at the crossings.
JPost.com staff contributed to this report
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