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World News

U.S. and Israel sign pact to stem Gaza arms smuggling

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Israel signed an accord on Friday aimed at stopping the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip, a move Washington hopes will lead to a durable ceasefire to end Israel’s three-week offensive.

The agreement, designed to prevent Hamas from rearming, was considered a vital element in a broad international push to end the violence in Gaza.

“It provides a series of steps that the United States and Israel will take to stem the flow of weapons and explosives (into Gaza),” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of the deal signed with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

“Together the steps that we and other members of the international community can take will contribute to a durable ceasefire,” Rice said.

Rice earlier said she could not predict whether a full ceasefire in Gaza was possible by Tuesday, when she ends her tenure and U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office.

“We are doing everything we can to bring this to an end,” Rice told reporters.

Israel said on Friday its Gaza offensive could be “in the final act” amid signs a ceasefire could be in the works. But Israel resumed its bombardment in Gaza after a relative lull in the fighting with Islamist militants.

Livni said the accord was a “vital component” in a series of actions to complement Egyptian efforts to end the flow of weapons to Gaza.

“For a cessation of hostilities to be durable, there must be an end to the smuggling of weapons into Gaza,” said Livni, who flew to Washington overnight to sign the accord.

NO U.S. PRESENCE ON GROUND

The deal involves information-sharing, technical assistance and the use of various U.S. “assets” to prevent arms from getting to Hamas either from air, land or sea.

The document signed by Rice and Livni said the deal included the use of detection equipment and the deployment of vessels from NATO countries to prevent maritime smuggling and to train and equip forces in counter-smuggling tactics.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said no U.S. personnel were expected to be stationed in Gaza or in Egypt under the deal.

“The idea here is to change the reality on the ground,” McCormack said of the agreement, which he said could serve as a model for agreements with France and Britain.

It is designed to ensure “Hamas is not able to be resupplied via sea, land or air,” he said.

Egypt has taken the lead in trying to cobble together a ceasefire arrangement between Israel and Iranian-backed Hamas.

The United States also hopes to revive a 2005 border crossings deal which Rice helped to negotiate but which fell apart soon after.

The Palestinian death toll from the Israeli air-and-ground offensive launched on December 27 has risen to at least 1,105 and there were more than 5,000 wounded, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. A Palestinian rights group put the civilian death toll at around 700.

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza is quite dire. I am very concerned about it,” Rice told reporters. “That’s another reason to get this ceasefire in place.”

Rice had lunch on Thursday with incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to explain the deal and she had also spoken to President-elect Barack Obama about it.

Before moving ahead on the agreement, Rice consulted, among others, with the French, British, Egyptian, Spanish and Australian foreign ministers as well as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has been in the region.

Writing by John Whitesides, additional reporting by Sue Pleming and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Eric Walsh

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