EU calls for urgent halt of Gaza, Israel violence
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union governments called on Israel and Hamas on Monday to agree a "rapid" ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and said they supported Egyptian efforts to mediate.
Mediators from Cairo said a truce could be close after days of Israeli air strikes on Gaza and rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled territory. But fighting continued on Monday, with Israel hitting dozens of targets in the enclave.
"The European Union ... calls for an urgent de-escalation and cessation of hostilities," EU foreign ministers said in a statement after a meeting in Brussels. "It supports the efforts of Egypt and other actors to mediate for a rapid ceasefire."
In six days of hostilities, 101 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed.
"Israel has the right to protect its population from these kinds of attacks," the EU ministers said of rocket attacks from Gaza.
"In doing so it must act proportionately and ensure the protection of civilians at all times."
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said there were some signs of the conflict abating.
"I am pleased Israel has so far held back from ground invasion while (mediation efforts) go on, and the rate of rocket attacks against Israel has fallen for whatever reason in the last 24 hours," he told reporters. "These are positive developments but this is a serious situation."
The EU is the largest donor of aid to the Palestinians, but its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has struggled to build the bloc's credentials as a power broker in the region.
In a sign of divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the EU ministers are struggling to find a unified position on Palestinian efforts to secure a diplomatic upgrade at the United Nations.
Despite the rise of violence between Gaza and Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he would push ahead with plans for a vote at the U.N. General Assembly before the end of the month to give the Palestinians the rank of "observer state" within the world body.
The Palestinians are currently considered an observer "entity" at the United Nations.
The upgrade would enhance Palestinians' legal rights at a time when peace negotiations have hit a wall over Israel's refusal to halt settlement building.
Both Israel and the United States have condemned the planned vote, which Abbas looks set to win, saying it violated previous agreements and would make any future peace talks more difficult.
(Editing by Sebastian Moffett and Robin Pomeroy)