Europeans and Arabs say turn truce into permanent peace

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) - European and conservative Arab leaders said on Sunday Israel and the Palestinians must turn a shaky ceasefire in Gaza into a permanent peace that prevents any recurrence of violence.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the host of a summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, said the three weeks of fighting in Gaza between the Islamist movement Hamas and Israel showed the need for a comprehensive deal.

“We look forward to an end to this sad page. We must not lose hope in peace ... because a just and comprehensive peace is the true guarantee for the security of the region’s peoples,” he told a closing news conference.

King Abdullah of Jordan said an Arab peace offer dating back to 2002 must stay alive. “If we don’t do this in this year, we will be back meeting again in the very near future,” he added.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the Gaza violence was part of a worldwide conflict and suggested a conference “to lay the foundations for peace in the coming weeks.”

Mubarak invited the leaders to Sharm el-Sheikh at short notice as Israel and Hamas separately announced an end to the Gaza war in which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks. Ten Israeli soldiers were killed as well as three Israeli civilians hit by rockets.

Diplomats said the aim was to explore ways to consolidate the shaky ceasefire by addressing the demands of the two sides.

The Europeans are offering military and technical assistance to stop Hamas receiving arms through smuggling into Gaza, one of Israel’s main demands throughout truce negotiations.


The participants -- the leaders of Britain, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Spain and Turkey, along with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon -- also promised to press for an end to the blockade which Israel and Egypt have imposed on Gaza since June 2007.

Since then Israel has controlled most supplies into Gaza and Egypt has refused to open its border for ordinary traffic for fear that Israel will abandon all responsibility for the impoverished and densely populated territory.

Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, said: “The smuggling was caused by the strangulation of the people of Gaza. All they are doing is trying to obtain anything by any means possible. So stopping the smuggling must be linked to opening the crossing points and ending the blockade.”

“2009 is an important year for us to end this situation and never get into a peace process like the one we have suffered, which is just movement for the sake of movement,” he added.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “We need to put this Middle East peace process back on track.

“This is a failure of political will at the level of people and leadership. The whole international community, particularly Arab countries, should fully support this process,” he said.

Ban said he was planning to send a humanitarian assessment team to Gaza to find out what is needed there.

Several of the participants, including Britain, France and Germany, have offered to send warships to the Middle East to help prevent Hamas in Gaza from receiving arms shipments.

One diplomat said this in itself was a departure in policy for the Europeans, who have previously refrained from using their armed forces to help either side.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told reporters on his way to Sharm el-Sheikh the British navy would patrol the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to prevent the smuggling.

But Egypt, much criticized in the Arab world for cooperating in the Israeli blockade of Gaza over the past six months, again refused to let foreign troops on to its territory as part of the anti-smuggling effort.

Writing by Jonathan Wright; editing by Samia Nakhoul