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US races to negotiate truce in Gaza confrontation

The Bush administration is racing in its final moments to negotiate a last-minute deal with Israel that might entice the Jewish state to agree to a cease-fire with the militant Hamas movement and end its military operation in Gaza, diplomats said Thursday.
On the administration's second-to-last workday before President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration, the two sides were crafting an agreement on American support for Egyptian-led truce mediation efforts under which the United States would provide technical support and expertise to prevent Hamas from rearming, said U.S. and Israeli officials.
It was not immediately clear whether members of Obama's or Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton's transition teams were being advised of the talks, which could lead to a prominent and continuing U.S. role in the truce.
A senior official from the Israeli foreign ministry was to meet with the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East at the State Department in a bid to secure the memorandum of understanding that would also guarantee international monitors along Egypt's border with Gaza, which is riddled with tunnels used to smuggle weapons to Hamas, they said.
If the two officials, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Aaron Abramovich, can agree to language of the document, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni may make a quick trip to Washington to sign it with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the diplomats said.
The goal is to overcome Israeli concerns about the Egyptian initiative, which has yet to produce a cease-fire after a week of intense talks in Cairo during which Israel has continued to pound targets in Gaza from the air, land and sea, they said. This might then give the Israelis the security assurances they want to accept a truce, they said.
The document, which aims to prevent smuggled weapons from reaching the border, would then be presented to the European Union for its ratification, they said.
The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not comment on the possible agreement and did not mention at an informal briefing with reporters Thursday that Rice had telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Earlier, Olmert's office said he and Rice had discussed the matter in a phone call, and "Israel is interested in utilizing the Egyptian channel to bring about a cease-fire and an end to weapons smuggling in order to end the operation."
"The Secretary of State said that the U.S. would be willing to assist in solving the smuggling issue and sign a memorandum of understanding with Israel on the subject," Olmert's office said in a statement.
McCormack said Rice had spoken to both Livni and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and was working intensely to secure a truce. "We're aggressively seeking to bring about a cease-fire," McCormack said.
Meanwhile, he renewed grave U.S. concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and again urged Israel to do everything it can to avoid civilian casualties in its continuing military operations there.
Rice's calls came after Israel shelled the United Nations headquarters in the Gaza Strip, engulfing the compound and the main warehouse in fire and destroying thousands of pounds of food intended for Palestinian refugees.
"We're deeply, deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation," McCormack said. "We have from the very beginnings of this talked about our concerns that innocents not be wrapped up in any of the combat, and the Israelis have assured us that they are taking every possible measure to avoid that."
He would not comment whether Israel was abiding by its assurances.
"I am not going to try and make a judgment," McCormack said. "They have assured us of that, and I have no reason to doubt them."
He refused to discuss specifics of Rice's conversations but said Barak had repeated what he told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about the shelling of the U.N. headquarters. Ban said earlier that he was outraged by the strike and had demanded a full explanation. He then said that Barak had told him it had been a "grave mistake."
"We heard the same thing from minister Barak as the secretary general did," McCormack said.

Updated : 2021-05-17 09:13 GMT+08:00