January 18, 2009 / 7:50 PM / 11 years ago

Backed by EU, Olmert says wants out of Gaza fast

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday that he wanted to pull his forces out of the Gaza Strip as soon as possible following the ceasefire declarations made by Israel and Hamas earlier in the day.

Speaking on a platform in Jerusalem accompanied by a line of Europe’s leaders, Olmert said: “We are interested in quitting the Gaza Strip at the greatest possible speed.

“We don’t want to stay in Gaza and we intend to leave it as quickly as possible.”

He met French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the British, Italian and Spanish prime ministers Gordon Brown, Silvio Berlusconi and Jose Luis Zapatero, and Czech premier Mirek Topolanek, representing the European Union.

The European visitors, who had earlier attended a summit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to bolster arrangements for a peace around the Gaza Strip, said they were showing a common front to promote a lasting peace in the region.

“Europe is here in strength and that shows that we want to make our contribution,” Merkel said, though adding like others that they were also looking to new U.S. President Barack Obama to play a key role in the Middle East.

European governments, and much of the European public, was critical of Israel’s three-week offensive, in which over 1,300 Palestinians were killed.

But though the European leaders expressed regrets at the loss of life — “We grieve at young children who have died,” Brown said — and though some, like Sarkozy, recalled their opposition to the war, they also spoke strongly in defense of Israel’s right to protect its citizens from Hamas rockets.

They called for rapid action to relieve the suffering of the wounded and others in Gaza, including an opening of border crossings from Israel and Egypt.

Some, including France and Germany, offered assistance in preventing arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip.

Sarkozy, who had flown in two weeks ago in pursuit of a peace deal to end the war, urged a massive international effort to end the 61-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting a peace conference: “Let’s take the risk for peace.”

Olmert said: “I would like to voice my personal appreciation and the appreciation of the people of Israel to you, the leaders of the states of Europe, for your impressive expression of support for the state of Israel and concern for its security.”

“If the truce is stable ... the state of Israel has no intention of staying in the Gaza Strip.”

Olmert also expressed “deep remorse” for civilian casualties — more than 700 civilians were killed, Gazan human rights workers said.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Luke Baker; Editing by Dominic Evans

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