EU pledges navy patrols to prevent Gaza smuggling
By LEIGH PHILLIPS
European Union states have engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity following the announcement of a ceasefire by Israel and Hamas declaring its own truce over the weekend, with the EU's big three pledging naval support to prevent the delivery of weapons into Gaza.
On Saturday (17 January) at midnight, Tel Aviv declared a unilateral ceasefire, saying its objectives of degrading Hamas' ability to fire rockets into Israel had been achieved.
Hamas on Sunday followed with an announcement of a truce, giving Israel seven days to leave the occupied territory and open all border crossings to permit the entry of humanitarian aid and basic goods.
Six EU leaders - the chiefs of France, Germany and the UK, alongside the Italian, Spanish and Czech prime ministers - then descended upon Sharm al-Sheikh in Egypt for a summit to discuss the crisis, where they committed to work to prevent arms smuggling, a key demand of Israel.
Specifically, they offered troops and technological assistance in co-operation with the US and Egypt to execute the task.
Neither Israel nor the governors of Gaza attended the meeting, but the leaders subsequently met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem.
Ahead of the summit, France, Germany and the UK furthermore offered support of naval patrols to monitor against weapons shipments, according to Reuters.
The leaders also called on Israel to lift the blockade.
"Israel should state immediately and clearly that if rocket fire will stop, the Israeli army will leave Gaza. There is no other solution to achieve peace," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Announcing an additional €22m (£20m) in humanitarian aid to Gaza, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown criticised Israel for the extreme violence of its offensive.
"We are yet to discover the full scale of the appalling suffering," he said, according to the Guardian. "But what is already clear is that too many innocent civilians, including hundreds of children, have been killed."
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi meanwhile offered support to the Jewish state, pointing out that he was proud to have been the one to push for the inclusion of Hamas on the EU's terror list, according to Israeli daily Haaretz, adding that he will work to see Israel welcomed as a member of the European Union.
"When I heard about the rocket fire at Israel, I felt that it was a danger to Italy, and to the entire West," the paper reports the Italian leader as saying.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also backed the provision of technical and training assistance to prevent arms deliveries via the Sinai peninsula, saying: "The two-state solution is the sole possibility [for peace]."
The Czech Republic, currently chairing the EU's six-month rotating presidency, also welcomed the ceasefire in a statement.
"The priority now is to ensure that no more civilians die as a result of this conflict. It is vital, therefore, that all required humanitarian assistance, including food, fuel and medical aid, is freely and rapidly delivered into, and distributed within Gaza," it read, calling for a renewal of the peace process.
"The EU stands ready to help establish an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian state, living side by side with Israel in peace and security," it continued.
The EU's executive body, the commission, expressed relief at the apparent end of the fighting.
"It was indispensable to have a ceasefire," said external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
"I call on Hamas to refrain from any violence in order to allow for an end to the terrible human suffering. It should also allow the EU and other donors to deliver much needed humanitarian assistance."
"Our priority is a durable peace. I hope we will soon see the regular opening of the Gaza crossings and the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from the Gaza strip," she added.
The peace nevertheless remains fragile. Some 20 rockets were fired across the border following the Israeli ceasefire had been announced, while Israel responded with additional bombing. It is unclear who perpetrated the rocket barrage.
Over 1,300 Palestinians were killed during the three-week war, mostly civilians, including hundreds of children, according to Gaza medical sources. A total of 13 Israelis were killed.