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Can Egypt broker truce in Gaza once again?

Hamas and Israel say they are weighing an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire as international calls to end the conflict mount.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 8, 2009

Relief: A Gazan woman waited for food outside a United Nations center Wednesday as Israel paused the assault to allow in humanitarian supplies.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters

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Tel Aviv

Israel held its fire on Hamas for three hours Wednesday afternoon, allowing strained Gazans to restock food and medical supplies, to ease a deepening humanitarian crisis that has led to a storm of international criticism.

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The lull came amid signs of Israeli readiness to consider a joint Egyptian-French proposal to reestablish a cease-fire after 11 days of Israel-Hamas fighting that has left at least 650 Palestinians dead and southern Israel under rocket attack.

Accused in the Arab world of giving tacit cover for Israeli attacks and keeping its borders closed to economic relief for Gaza, Egypt has been caught in the crossfire between Israel and Hamas.

"The loser will be Egypt from this war," says Iyad Barghouti, an expert on political Islam at the Ramallah Center for Human Rights. "Their position is not accepted by anyone in the [Arab street]."

He says that many Arabs do not see Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak as a trusted mediator, but as the friend of their enemy Israel.

And yet, Egypt is increasingly being looked to by the international community as the only state capable of mediating indirect contacts on a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. It was Egypt that brokered a six-month cease-fire last June between the two, but the unwritten calm expired on Dec. 19, giving way to the current fighting.

On Wednesday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy praised Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) for considering the joint proposal with Egypt for a halt in fighting. Israel, for its part, said it merely wants to continue discussing a resolution with the Egyptians and the French, stopping well short of endorsing the cease-fire formula.

Despite Israel's pause in attacks, human rights organizations said it wasn't enough to improve the dire humanitarian conditions for the 1.5 million Palestinian in Gaza.

The World Bank warned of a growing public health risk because of the lack of drinking water and a collapse of Gaza's wastewater systems that has sent sewage into the streets.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Wednesday's lull was an Israeli "ruse."

Despite its dialogue with Hamas, Egypt and the Islamist militants came into direct confrontation at the outset of the fighting. Hamas called on the Arab world to pressure Egypt to open up the Rafah crossing into Gaza for humanitarian supplied.

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