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UN awaits Israeli response

world Updated: Jan 07, 2009 14:10 IST
Sue Pleming

The UN Security Council, mulling its own action to end Israel's attack on Gaza that has killed more than 600 Palestinians, waited on Wednesday for Israel's response to a U.S.-backed ceasefire proposal by Egypt.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while calling for a "durable and sustainable" ceasefire, commended Egypt's efforts but made clear there could be no deal unless Hamas halted attacks on Israel and stopped smuggling arms into Gaza.

"We need urgently to conclude a ceasefire that can endure and that can bring real security," Rice, who praised Egypt's efforts, told the Security Council on Tuesday at a session called to discuss the 12-day Israeli offensive.

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations indicated the Jewish state might be open to Egypt's ceasefire proposal but she offered no firm guarantees.

"We respect every effort being made to find a solution," Ambassador Gabriela Shalev told reporters. "I am very sure it will be considered ... we take it very, very seriously."

Egypt's proposal calls for a limited initial truce to allow aid into Gaza and would then give time for Cairo to broker a more permanent ceasefire.

The United Nations had been expected to be a major focus of international diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire deal between Hamas and Israel this week, but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced his own initiative after meeting France's President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

"Forget about a UN resolution. The important efforts are those on the ground," said a European diplomat.

The Bush administration is pressing for a ceasefire that would include three elements: a halt to rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, the opening of border crossings into the territory and an end to smuggling into the area through tunnels from Egypt.

US says will stick to principles

A senior U.S. official said while the United States backed Mubarak's initiative, Washington would not back down on its basic elements of a ceasefire.

"We will not change our principles," the senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

US backing for the Egyptian ceasefire proposal is in contrast to its strong distaste for a draft resolution offered by Libya which Washington and its allies see as anti-Israeli.

Despite the opposition, Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Shalgam was upbeat about the prospects of getting through his resolution and told reporters he would press ahead with trying to get a vote in the Security Council.

UN deliberations on Gaza are expected to resume on Wednesday morning and Western diplomats said it was very unlikely the Libyan resolution would be voted on.

In an emotional appeal for a ceasefire, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged backing for Mubarak's plan.

"Do not let one more Palestinian mother cry for her children, do not allow it, put an end to the massacre of my people, let my people live, and let my people be free," he said.

On Tuesday, Israeli fire killed at least 40 Palestinians at a U.N. school in Gaza where civilians had taken shelter. Israel said its troops were returning fire from the school.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said attacks such as the one on the U.N. school were a "devastating reminder" of the urgency of diplomatic efforts to get a ceasefire deal.

More than 600 Palestinians have been killed and at least 2,700 wounded since Israel began the campaign last month with the declared aim of ending rocket attacks by Hamas Islamist militants on its southern towns. Ten Israelis, including three civilians hit by rocket fire, have been killed.

The school killings could intensify world pressure on Israel for a ceasefire, as happened during Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah when 28 unarmed Lebanese were killed in shelling at the village of Qana.

Asked after the U.N. meeting whether the United States would put pressure on Israel to accept the Mubarak ceasefire offer or whether she thought a deal was close, Rice declined comment, except to say, "See you tomorrow."

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Claudia Parsons; editing by Mohammad Zargham)