Israel ready to declare Gaza ceasefire

Israel's security cabinet was to meet on Saturday night to declare a ceasefire in Gaza and keep its forces...

Written by New York Times | Jerusalem | Published:January 18, 2009 12:17 am

Israel’s security cabinet was to meet on Saturday night to declare a ceasefire in Gaza and keep its forces there in the short term while the next stage of an agreement with Egypt is worked out.

“It looks as if all the pieces of the puzzle are coming together,” Mark Regev,spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert,said on Friday. “There will be discussions tomorrow morning,and it looks like a Cabinet meeting will take place tomorrow night. Everyone is very upbeat.”

Meanwhile,Israeli tank fire killed two boys at a United Nations-run school on Saturday in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya,a UN official said. Adnan Abu Hasna,a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency,said two brothers had been killed and 14 people had been wounded in the attack.

The most promising element for bringing the three-week conflict to a close occurred in Washington on Friday,where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni signed an understanding on a range of steps the US would take to stem the flow of new arms to Hamas from the Egyptian Sinai.

The agreement came on the last business day of the Bush administration and set the stage for the Obama administration to play a more active role in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. President-elect Barack Obama and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton signed off on the plan,the State Department said.

Whether Hamas will comply with the terms of parallel talks with Egypt was unclear. At a meeting organised by Qatar,a top exiled Hamas leader rejected Israeli terms for a ceasefire and called for increased resistance.

“Israel will not be able to destroy our resistance,and the United States will not be able to dictate us their rules,” the leader,Khaled Meshal,said in defiant remarks broadcast worldwide. “Arab countries should help Hamas to fight against the death of civilian Palestinians.”

But the Gaza branch of Hamas,squabbling with exiles out of the line of Israeli fire,seems to have agreed with much of Egypt’s ceasefire proposal.

The ceasefire under discussion is more formal than the one that broke down late last month,when each side accused the other of failing to live up to its terms,and in some ways seems devised to overcome the last one’s weaknesses.

Unlike the last one,this will be written down,in Israel’s case,in the form of an agreement with Egypt and the understanding with the United States. Israel and Hamas do not speak officially,but Egypt has been brokering terms between the two. Israel was unwilling to have an accord that might confer legitimacy on Hamas,which preaches Israel’s destruction.

The agreement chalked out in Washington would provide American technical assistance,as well as international monitors,to crack down on the tunnels. It would not,however,involve the deployment of US troops in the region. The composition of the monitoring force was not yet clear,a senior official said. The agreement stipulates that the US would work to interdict weapons with its NATO partners,expanding the responsibility to keep Hamas disarmed.

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