6 European heads of state make lightning visit to J'lem; PM: We intend to leave as soon as possible.
By ETGAR LEFKOVITS
Less than 24 hours after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared a unilateral cease-fire, six European leaders came to Jerusalem Sunday to underscore their commitment to ending the arms smuggling into Gaza, in a move Jerusalem insisted was more than just an empty gesture.
"Six world leaders dropped everything to come here and express their support for Israel's security. That's not something that happens every day," one senior diplomatic official said.
Earlier in the day, Hamas announced its own one-week cease-fire and issued an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw its troops from Gaza within that time.
The announcement was made by Hamas officials in Syria. Later, Hamas representatives in the Strip also issued a statement saying they would honor the cease-fire.
Two rockets fired from Gaza hit the South following the Hamas declaration.
Despite the uncertainty over the tenuous cease-fire, Olmert told the gathering of European leaders that Israel was adamant about withdrawing troops.
"We didn't set out to conquer Gaza, we didn't set out to control Gaza, we don't want to remain in Gaza, and we intend on leaving Gaza as fast as possible," Olmert said in an address to the European leaders at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem.
The delegation consisted of Czech Prime Minister and current EU President Mirek Topolanek, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The gala dinner at Olmert's residence was also attended by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu.
In his address, which was well-received, Olmert stressed the importance of stopping Hamas from rearming and of thwarting the flow of weapons under the Egyptian border.
"Today it is clear to everyone that in order to achieve a stable cease-fire, Hamas must be prevented from building up its military capabilities through massive weapons smuggling from Iran and Syria to the Gaza Strip," Olmert said.
He noted that the leaders of Britain, Italy, Germany and France had pledged in a letter to Israel that they would work to stop the flow of weapons from getting to the "murderous organizations" in Gaza.
"This is in the supreme interest of all those who fight the forces of evil," Olmert said.
The prime minister again expressed his sorrow over the deaths of civilians in Gaza, calling them "hostages of the Hamas murderers" and vowing to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the territory.
"We did not fight against them; we did not wish to harm them or their children or their parents or their siblings," Olmert said.
The lightning visit by the six leaders, who came to Israel after attending a peace summit earlier in the afternoon at the Egyptian resort of Sharm e-Sheikh, was the single largest contingent of world leaders to come to Israel at one time since the funeral of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Israeli officials said.
The European leaders all welcomed Olmert's remarks on a speedy troop pullout from Gaza, concurred that arms smuggling had to be stopped, and voiced the hope that the new administration of US President-elect Barack Obama would jump-start the peace process.
"The place of the IDF is not in Gaza," Sarkozy said in his address, which he said was coming from a friend. "We must exit this vicious cycle of provocation and reaction."
The French president also said that IDF soldier St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas in a 2006 cross-border raid, needed to be released as part of the ensuing peace moves.
Schalit holds French citizenship, and his family has long credited Sarkozy with doing the most of any European leader to gain his release.
"This is not only because he is French, but because it is the right thing to do," Sarkozy said.
The French leader suggested holding a major international conference to further peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Earlier in Egypt, Sarkozy said, "We must put an end to the arms traffic. 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."
Despite all the international proclamations, Egypt has firmly rejected any deployment of international monitoring forces on its side of the Gaza border, insisting its forces can police the frontier for weapons smugglers.
Berlusconi said at the Sharm e-Sheikh conference that he was willing to make Italy's paramilitary Carabinieri police force available for any maritime patrols.
Brown, who urged Israel to reopen the crossings into Gaza, voiced the hope that the cease-fire would lead to a sustainable and durable peace between the two sides.
"The task before us is not just a cease-fire and an end to arms trafficking, but building permanent peace," Brown said. "Permanent peace may seem a distant prospect at the moment, but through the anguish and the suffering, we can see the road toward peace."
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.
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