January 15, 2009 / 1:32 PM / in 9 years

Phased Gaza ceasefire takes shape: diplomats

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Egyptian proposal to end the war in Gaza centers on a phased-in ceasefire, starting with a lull to let in aid, followed by the pullout of Israeli forces and the reopening of border crossings, diplomats said.

But Western and U.N. diplomats close to the negotiations said Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, who do not talk to each other, were still at odds over some of the fine print.

The main sticking points were how long a proposed truce would last, and how quickly Israel would complete its withdrawal and reopen the crossings, the diplomats said, describing the Egyptian proposal as an evolving work in progress.

European diplomats said NATO-member Turkey was one of the few countries that appeared willing to send monitors to the border if an agreement between Egypt and Israel can be reached. But Israel and Hamas have sent mixed messages about whether they would accept such a truce “verification” mission.

“The devil is in the details,” one of the Western diplomats said, noting that even if Israel and Hamas agreed to the ceasefire, disputes could emerge between the phases of implementation and reignite the conflict.

Israel on Thursday dispatched senior defense official Amos Gilad to Cairo and Foreign Ministry director-general Aharon Abramovitz to Washington to finalize regional and international security guarantees that would bolster Egyptian efforts to prevent Hamas from rearming, Israel’s chief demand for a truce.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed in a telephone call to sign an agreement on specific border security measures.

A Hamas delegation said on Wednesday that it conveyed the group’s views about the proposed ceasefire to Egypt, but it has yet to disclose those views publicly.

PHASED PLAN

Diplomats briefed on the drafting of the Egyptian proposal said it envisaged an initial phase in which Israeli and Palestinian fighters would abide by a lull in fighting to allow for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to aid Gaza’s 1.5 million residents.

During this first phase, Israeli troops could remain in parts of the coastal territory but would not advance.

A second phase would include finalizing border security arrangements sought by Israel and the reopening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt under the auspices of European monitors, the diplomats and officials said.

Provided both sides hold their fire in the first and second phases, Israel would then complete its withdrawal and open Gaza’s other border crossings, the diplomats said.

It is unclear how long this process would take.

Diplomats cautioned that the presence of Israeli troops on the ground, even if only for a few days, would risk a flare-up.

Hamas has demanded that any ceasefire require Israel to immediately withdraw its troops and open border crossings in a “single package,” an Arab diplomat said. Hamas does not trust Israel to abide by its obligations if they are phased in.

Israel and Hamas are also at odds over how long the ceasefire would last. Hamas objected to an open-ended truce and initially proposed it last six months. But in its response to the Egyptian proposal, Hamas suggested a one-year, renewable truce, said a diplomat briefed on the group’s position.

Israel opposes setting a time limitation. “Israel will not accept a situation where Hamas gets a temporary period of quiet just to rearm and regroup,” said Mark Regev, Olmert’s spokesman.

Israeli officials said the security guarantees would include Egyptian acceptance of U.S. and European advisers and technology to help combat smuggling tunnels along the border with Gaza.

In addition to a crackdown on smuggling along the so-called Philadelphi corridor that separates Gaza from Egypt, Israel said it wants an international maritime monitoring program to track and halt vessels with rockets bound for the enclave.

Alongside a tightened arms embargo, the European Union and other donors plan to provide economic assistance to people living on both sides of the Gaza-Egyptian border to reduce their dependence on income from smuggling, diplomats said.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in the Gaza Strip and Jonathan Wright in Cairo; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Mark Trevelyan

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