EU calls for 'rapid' Gaza ceasefire


European Union governments called on Israel and Hamas tonight to agree a "rapid" ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and said they supported Egyptian efforts to mediate.

Mediators from Cairo said a truce could be close after days of Israeli air strikes on Gaza and rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled territory.

Fighting continued today, with Israel hitting dozens of targets in the enclave.

"The European Union ... calls for an urgent de-escalation and cessation of hostilities," EU foreign ministers said in a statement after a meeting in Brussels. "It supports the efforts of Egypt and other actors to mediate for a rapid ceasefire."

In six days of hostilities, 101 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed.

"Israel has the right to protect its population from these kinds of attacks," the EU ministers said of rocket attacks from Gaza.

"In doing so it must act proportionately and ensure the protection of civilians at all times."

Speaking ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Europe today, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore said he was “gravely concerned" at the current situation. “Innocent civilians, on both sides, are caught up in this and counted among the dead and injured. The EU will look to all involved parties to avoid further escalation and establish a durable ceasefire,” he said.

Italian foreign minister Giulio Terzi, said he believed there “are the conditions to quickly reach a ceasefire in the next few hours."

He said that from his conversations with members of the Israeli government, he understood "there is no interest at all" to invade the Gaza Strip. "Exactly the opposite is true," he said before the meeting in Brussels. "Obviously, this Israeli self-restraint should rely on a guarantee that the launches of rockets should end."

The EU is the largest donor of aid to the Palestinians, but its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has struggled to build the bloc's credentials as a power broker in the region.

In a sign of divisions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the EU ministers are struggling to find a unified position on Palestinian efforts to secure a diplomatic upgrade at the United Nations.

Despite the rise of violence between Gaza and Israel, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has said he would push ahead with plans for a vote at the UN General Assembly before the end of the month to give the Palestinians the rank of "observer state" within the world body.

The Palestinians are currently considered an observer "entity" at the United Nations. The upgrade would enhance Palestinians' legal rights at a time when peace negotiations have hit a wall over Israel's refusal to halt settlement building.

Both Israel and the United States have condemned the planned vote, which Mr Abbas looks set to win, saying it violated previous agreements and would make any future peace talks more difficult.

Israel bombed dozens of suspected militant sites in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip today and Palestinians kept up their cross-border rocket fire as international pressure for a truce intensified.

United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon will travel to Jerusalem to meet with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and speak to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, it emerged tonight.

Mr Ban will not visit the Gaza Strip which is controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement. Details of his itinerary were given by UN spokesman Martin Nesirky, speaking to reporters by phone.

For the second straight day, Israeli missiles hit a tower block in the city of Gaza housing international media. Two people were killed there, one of them an Islamic Jihad militant.

Khaled Meshaal, exiled leader of Hamas, said a truce was possible but the Islamist group, in charge of the Gaza Strip since 2007, would not accept Israeli demands and wanted Israel to halt its strikes first and lift its blockade of the enclave.

"Whoever started the war must end it," he told a news conference in Cairo, adding that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election in January, had asked for a truce, an assertion a senior Israeli official denied.

Mr Meshaal said Mr Netanyahu feared the domestic consequences of a "land war" of the kind Israel launched four years ago: "He can do it, but he knows that it will not be a picnic and that it could be his political death and cost him the elections."

For Israel, vice prime minister Moshe Yaalon has said that "if there is quiet in the south and no rockets and missiles are fired at Israel's citizens, nor terrorist attacks engineered from the Gaza Strip, we will not attack."

Mr Yaalon also said Israel wanted an end to Gaza guerrilla activity in the neighbouring Egyptian Sinai peninsula.

Although 84 per cent of Israelis supported the current Gaza assault, according to a poll by Israel's Haaretz newspaper, only 30 per cent wanted an invasion, while 19 per cent wanted their government to work on securing a truce soon.

Egypt said a deal for a truce to end the fighting could be close. The leader of Hamas said it was up to Israel to end the new conflict it had started.

"I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of negotiation, (means) it is very difficult to predict," Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil, who visited Gaza on Friday in a show of support for its people, said in an interview in Cairo for the Reuters Middle East Investment Summit.

Egypt has been hosting leaders of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a smaller armed faction. Israeli media said a delegation from Israel had also been to Cairo for truce talks.

A spokesman for Mr Netanyahu's government declined comment on the matter. Egypt's foreign minister is expected to visit Gaza tomorrow with a delegation of Arab ministers.

Thousands turned out on Gaza's streets to mourn four children and five women, among 11 people killed in an Israeli strike that flattened a three-storey home yesterday

The bodies were wrapped in Palestinian and Hamas flags. Echoes of explosions mixed with cries of grief and defiant chants of "God is greatest".

The deaths of the 11 in an air strike drew more international calls for an end to six days of hostilities and could test Western support for an offensive Israel billed as self-defence after years of cross-border rocket attacks.

Israel said it was investigating its air strike that brought the home crashing down on the al-Dalu family, where the dead spanned four generations. Some Israeli newspapers said the wrong house may have been mistakenly targeted.

In scenes recalling Israel's 2008-2009 winter invasion of the coastal enclave, tanks, artillery and infantry have massed in field encampments along the sandy, fenced-off border and military convoys moved on roads in the area.

Israel has also authorised the call-up of 75,000 military reservists, so far mobilising around half that number.

The Gaza fighting adds to worries of world powers watching an already combustible region, where several Arab autocrats have been toppled in popular revolts for the past two years and a civil war in Syria threatens to spread beyond its borders.

In the absence of any prospect of permanent peace between Israel and Islamist factions such as Hamas, mediated deals for each to hold fire unilaterally have been the only formula for stemming bloodshed in the past.

Israel's declared goal is to deplete Gaza arsenals and force Hamas to stop rocket fire that has hit Israeli border towns for years.

Hamas and other groups in Gaza are sworn enemies of the Jewish state which they refuse to recognise and seek to eradicate, claiming all Israeli territory as rightfully theirs.

Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian Territories in 2006. A year later, after the collapse of a unity government under president Mahmoud Abbas, the Islamist group seized Gaza in a brief civil war with Abbas's forces.

China today urged both sides to halt the violence, while US president Barack Obama said at the weekend it would be "preferable" if Israel did not mount a ground invasion of Gaza.

Meanwhile, Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan today accused Israel of carrying out "terrorist acts" in its bombardment of Gaza. "Those who associate Islam with terrorism close their eyes in the face of mass killing of Muslims, turn their heads from the massacre of children in Gaza," Mr Erdogan told a conference of the Eurasian Islamic Council in Istanbul. "For this reason, I say that Israel is a terrorist state, and its acts are terrorist acts."

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