- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

CAIRO | Egyptian mediators pushed the militant Palestinian group Hamas to accept a truce proposal for the embattled Gaza Strip in talks Tuesday, while the U.N. secretary-general headed to the region to join diplomatic efforts for a cease-fire.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has backed the Egyptian truce proposal to halt the fighting, now in its third week. Before leaving New York for the Egyptian capital Tuesday, he urged Israel and Hamas to accept a U.N. cease-fire resolution and allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

“To both sides, I say: Just stop, now,” Mr. Ban told a press conference Monday. “Too many people have died.” He said Hamas militants who have been firing rockets into southern Israel “must stop.”

“They must look to the future of the Palestinian people.”

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday unanimously supported Mr. Ban’s efforts after he briefed the council behind closed doors.

Tuesday’s talks between Hamas and Egyptian officials in Cairo were the latest in intensive diplomatic efforts. In Damascus, Syria, the Turkish prime minister’s top foreign-policy adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu, met for the third time in two days with Hamas’ exiled political leader, Khalid Mashaal.

But so far, the push has yielded little public progress.

Hamas’ deputy leader, Moussa Abu Marzouk, told Al Jazeera TV that the Egyptian proposal is not acceptable as it stands. Hamas has “amendments” for it, and if “taken into consideration, it will be a framework for moving toward a solution,” he said.

Israel’s point man to the cease-fire talks, Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, is slated to come to Cairo on Thursday, Israeli Defense Ministry officials said Tuesday. Mr. Gilad had put off the trip for days, saying the time was not yet ripe.

Defense officials say that depending on what happens in Cairo, Israel will decide whether to move closer to a cease-fire or launch a new, even tougher stage of its offensive. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing sensitive policy matters.

The U.N. secretary-general won’t meet Hamas officials or go to Gaza during his trip, which also includes Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Kuwait.

On Tuesday, the Hamas delegation held a new round of talks with Egypt’s top mediator, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, and Egyptian officials. Later, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left on a previously unannounced trip to Riyadh to meet with his ally, Saudi King Abdullah, to discuss the cease-fire efforts, Egyptian officials said.

The talks come as Israeli ground troops pushed deeper into Gaza City in their 18-day offensive, in which more than 900 Palestinians have been killed, half of them civilians. Israel says its assault aims to stop Hamas rocket attacks, saying it will stop only when there are guarantees the rocket fire and smuggling of weapons into Gaza will stop.

Hamas demands an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, a halt to the offensive and the opening of border crossings into the tiny Mediterranean coastal territory, which Israel and Egypt have mostly kept sealed since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007.

How those crossings are to be opened, however, is a major sticking point.

Egypt has called for international monitors at the borders to prevent smuggling, although not on the Egyptian side of the border, and there is also talk of such monitors being tasked with ensuring the cease-fire. Hamas has so far rejected any international monitors and demands a role in controlling the border crossings, which Egypt and Israel refuse.

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