By Craig Whitlock and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 17, 2009
JERUSALEM, Jan. 16 -- Israeli leaders said they would meet Saturday to consider approval of an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that would bring to an end their three-week-old assault against Hamas, the armed Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip.
As Israel faced harsh censure from some of its friends in the Middle East, including Turkey and Qatar, an Israeli government spokesman said the military operation was "in its final act," although other officials cautioned that the proposed truce was still fragile.
Israel sent diplomats to Cairo and Washington on Friday to negotiate final details of a multifaceted plan that would stop the war largely on Israel's terms. "There is optimism, and things are moving favorably," said a senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because talks were continuing.
Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal cast doubt on whether the movement would go along. "We will not accept Israel's conditions for a cease-fire," Meshal said during a summit of Arab leaders in Doha, the Qatari capital.
Israeli officials have insisted that Hamas commit to a cease-fire that would endure for at least one year. Israel has also sought assurances from Egypt, the United States and European countries that they will work together to prevent Hamas from rearming and continuing to fire rockets into southern Israel.
In Washington, Israel secured one of its objectives Friday by signing an agreement with the United States designed to help stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Under the pact, signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the United States pledges to help track and thwart smugglers attempting to supply Hamas with rockets and other munitions.
Rice told reporters the agreement would be part of a broader international effort -- including similar arrangements with European countries -- to stem the flow of arms into Gaza.
The U.S.-Israeli deal "should be thought of as one of the elements of trying to bring into being a durable cease-fire," Rice said. A key element, she said, "is to do something about the weapons smuggling and the potential for resupply of Hamas from other places, including from Iran."
Israel has imposed a near-total blockade on Gaza since Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist and has targeted southern Israel with rockets for years, took exclusive control of the strip in June 2007. Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005, ending a presence in the territory that began in 1967 when Israeli forces occupied Gaza and the West Bank. Palestinians envision establishing a state in the two territories.
Smugglers have eluded the blockade by digging tunnels under Gaza's southern border with Egypt. The Israeli military has said it has blown up hundreds of tunnels in Gaza since the war began Dec. 27, but Israeli officials are worried that smugglers will burrow new routes as soon as the fighting ends. To prevent that, U.S. and Israeli officials have discussed the possibility of constructing an underground barrier along the Egyptian-Gazan border.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack acknowledged that the United States has sent a team from the Army Corp of Engineers to the region to study the issue. In a news conference, he said the U.S. government has committed money as part of the anti-smuggling effort, but he would not say how much.
Livni flew to Washington to sign the deal with Rice, with whom she has formed a close partnership. Livni is a candidate for prime minister in Israel's elections next month and was looking for a political boost, analysts said. One of her main rivals, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has seen his popular support climb since the war began.
Winning a deal in Washington, Israel's closest ally, may have been the easiest part for Israeli diplomats. Egypt has balked at allowing foreigners on its soil to patrol or inspect the Gazan border, though officials in Cairo have said they would welcome more money to help them do the work themselves.
Hamas has also given mixed signals about whether it will observe a cease-fire and under what conditions. Complicating matters is Israel's policy of not negotiating directly with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization.
Hamas delegates from Gaza have been meeting in Cairo with Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, and have said they are amenable to a truce under certain conditions. Among them: that Israel withdraw its forces from Gaza, reopen border crossings and end the blockade.
But other Hamas leaders living in exile in Syria and Lebanon have taken a harder line, insisting that Israel pull out and open the border before the Islamist fighters lay down their arms.
Meshal called on Arab countries Friday to sever any ties they have with Israel to protest the fighting in Gaza. Two nations, Mauritania and Qatar, responded by cutting off political and economic contacts with Israel.
Israel was also admonished Friday by Turkey, its closest ally in the Muslim world.
In Ankara, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Israel should be kicked out of the United Nations. He criticized Israel for ignoring a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and for shelling a U.N. relief agency headquarters in Gaza City on Thursday. Israeli leaders called the strike on the building a mistake but said they were responding to fire from Hamas fighters.
"How is such a country, which totally ignores and does not implement resolutions of the U.N. Security Council, allowed to enter through the gates of the U.N.?" Erdogan said. He called the attack on the U.N. building, which occurred during a visit to Israel by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, "an open challenge to the world."
Even as diplomatic efforts intensified Friday, the fighting in Gaza continued, though with less ferocity than the day before, witnesses said. The Israeli military said airstrikes targeted 40 sites overnight, and seven Palestinians were reported killed.
More than 1,140 Palestinians have died since the beginning of the conflict, Muawiyah Hassanein, a Gazan Health Ministry official, said Friday. More than 5,100 people had been injured, including 470 who remain in serious condition, he said.
Thirteen Israelis have been killed, including 10 soldiers and three civilians who died from rocket attacks in southern Israel.
Palestinian fighters fired more than 10 rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring three people, one of whom was listed in critical condition, Israeli officials said.
Kessler reported from Washington. Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.