Peace brokers proclaimed a breakthrough Wednesday in efforts to halt the Gaza conflict as Israel warmed to a Franco-Egyptian initiative.
Israel stopped short of saying whether the plan floated late Tuesday by the presidents of Egypt and France after a summit by the Red Sea would be accepted as a basis on which to end its 12-day-old campaign in Gaza where nearly 700 people have been killed.
However its chief spokesman said Israel viewed the initiative positively, prompting French President Nicolas Sarkozy to hail its "acceptance" by Israel and the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas to say he was willing to go to Egypt for more talks.
Egypt is also to invite Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Abbas’s rival Fatah movement, to a fresh round of reconciliation talks.
The Israeli military called a three-hour halt to its bombing of Gaza in the afternoon to allow aid to reach the territory, prompting Hamas fighters to also hold their fire and allowing embattled Gazans to venture outside to shop for food. Clashes resumed after its expiry, however.
Hamas and Israel
A senior Hamas source said the Islamists’ leadership was examining the truce plan after talks with Egyptian officials.
Hamas’s senior leader, politburo chief Khaled Meshaal, was also quoted as expressing a "readiness to take part in such a solution to the conflict" after talks with a Russian envoy.
In his meeting with Russia’s top Middle East envoy, deputy foreign minister Alexander Saltanov, Meshaal stressed that any truce should not involve a capitulation by Hamas.
Earlier, an Israeli government spokesman welcomed the Franco-Egyptian initiative in principle.
"Israel sees positively the dialogue between Egyptians and Israelis in order to advance these issues," Mark Regev said.
A senior aide to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will be going to Cairo on Thursday to discuss the proposal.
Israel also postponed a decision on whether to order its armed forces to storm the Gaza Strip’s urban centres, an Israeli official said, citing the efforts to secure a truce.
The peace plan calls for an immediate ceasefire for a specific period to allow aid into Gaza which is gripped by a major humanitarian crisis and for Israelis and Palestinians to meet in Egypt to discuss securing Gaza’s borders.
The Israeli military dropped leaflets warning residents around the southern Gaza town of Rafah to leave the area Wednesday ahead of planned bombings of tunnels leading into Egypt.
The Israeli army "demands those who live (in the areas bordering Egypt) to leave their houses," the leaflets said in Arabic. "You have until 8:00am (0600 GMT)" on Thursday.
The leaflet says that the military "will bomb the area due to its use by terrorists to (dig) tunnels and to stock up" on arms.
An army spokeswoman said the military dropped the flyers "as in the past to avoid civilian casualties."
The area around Rafah is criss-crossed by what the Israeli army estimates to be some 300 tunnels and what local residents have told AFP is 500 subterranean passages from Gaza into Egypt.
The tunnels are used to smuggle supplies and arms into Gaza, an impoverished enclave that Israel has virtually locked down after Hamas won the elections in the occupied territories then clashed with rival Fatah in June 2007.
The question of security on the border between Egypt and Gaza, which includes the only crossing to bypass Israel, at Rafah, has emerged as key to peace.
The European Union said it was prepared to help Egypt prevent arms smuggling along its border with the Gaza Strip as part of a ceasefire with Israel but played down the need for foreign ground forces.
Senior U.S. official U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel on Wednesday to seriously consider an Egyptian ceasefire proposal as the U.N. Security
Council weighed action to end Israel’s attack on Gaza.
Rice spoke by telephone on Wednesday to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and was to meet Arab ministers as well as her French and British counterparts at the United Nations.
"We are trying to move forward here on a lot of different fronts," said a senior U.S. official traveling with Rice, who planned to stay in New York to push the diplomatic efforts.
The White House said a ceasefire was urgently needed but the talks were complicated by the number of parties involved.
US Objects to Libyan Resolution
While backing the Egyptian proposal, the United States strongly objected to a Libyan draft resolution which Washington and its allies see as anti-Israeli.
Libyan Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdel-Rahman Shalgam told reporters on Tuesday he would try to get a Security Council vote despite the opposition.
Rice was to meet Shalgam later on Wednesday and make the U.S. position clear. Western diplomats said it was very unlikely the Libyan resolution would be voted on.
In an emotional speech, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged the Security Council on Wednesday to back Mubarak’s plan.
"Do not let one more Palestinian mother cry for her children," he said. "Put an end to the massacre of my people, let my people live and let my people be free."
On Tuesday, Israeli fire killed at least 40 Palestinians at a U.N. school in Gaza where civilians had taken shelter. Israel said its troops were returning fire from the school.
The school killings could intensify world pressure on Israel for a ceasefire, as happened during Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah when 28 unarmed Lebanese were killed in shelling at the village of Qana.
(Alarabiya.net and Agencies)