Cease-fire efforts under way as Gaza conflict simmers

Israel seeks US help on Gaza weapons smuggling, while Arab nations remain divided over a truce.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The Arab League held an emergency meeting in Qatar Friday on the Gazaconflict. Arab governments' division on the issue is illustrated by theattendance: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Morocco did not attend.
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    A Palestinian protester throws stones at Israeli troops during clashes at a demonstration against Israel's military operation in Gaza. Some 1,100 Palestinians have been killed since the war began on Dec. 27, including 346 children, according to United Nations figures. Thirteen Israelis have been killed, nine soldiers and four civilians by rocket fire.
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Efforts to bring about a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas continued on Friday while hostilities boiled at a somewhat lower temperature than they have in recent days and the war ground into its third week.

Six Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza Friday, during what Israeli officials said might be the final stages of the military operation. Five Israelis were injured by rockets launched by Hamas guerillas in Gaza – two were wounded when a rocket hit the southern coastal city of Ashdod and another three were hurt by two rockets that struck the southern town of Kiryat Gat.

Around the West Bank, protests in several cities turned into minor clashes between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli troops.

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The slower burn on Friday evinced a mix of exhaustion with fighting and increased efforts to reach a cease-fire in the coming days.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was in Washington Friday to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Ms. Livni wants US help to be included as part of any cease-fire deal. US officials say Israel is looking for US intelligence, at a minimum, to assist in stopping the smuggling of rockets and other weapons into Gaza.

The United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, has stayed in the region to press for a cease-fire, which he said he hoped to reach over the next two days. But he urged both sides to stop firing immediately.

"It is time now to even think about a unilateral cease-fire," he said while visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

Mr. Ban expressed outrage a day earlier when Israel hit a major UN compound that gives food assistance to Palestinians throughout the Gaza Strip, 70 percent of whom are dependent on such aid. Israel's defense minister apologized for the incident, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israeli troops had been fired at from the building.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Olmert, is cautiously optimistic about the progress of the cease-fire talks with Egypt. Israel's main negotiator in the cease-fire talks, Amos Gilad, traveled to Egypt for a second day in row "to get some final points clarified." An agreement could get final approval as early as Saturday, when the troika of Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Ms. Livni are tentatively scheduled to meet. "It depends on the answers we are receiving," says Mr. Regev.

At an emergency meeting about Gaza in Qatar, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called on Arab nations to cut ties with Israel. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal made the same request, and said Israel's conditions for a truce were not acceptable.

But the Arabic-language daily Asharq Al Awsat reported today that Hamas is ready for a cease-fire.

"This is all fog of negotiations," says Meir Javedanfar, Middle East analyst in Tel Aviv, and the coauthor of a book on the Iranian nuclear program.

"It will clear up as time goes, and as both sides become more clear on what they want, what they can have, and what they can't have."

Among Israel's demands are barriers that would prevent Hamas from continuing to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Israel would also like an open-ended cease-fire without an expiration date, while Hamas would only agree to a cease-fire of one year with an option to renew.

Also part of the deliberations is whether forces loyal to Fatah's Mr. Abbas, which could be posted on the border between Gaza and Egypt, would be acceptable to Hamas.

The Middle East divide between those backing Hamas and those backing Fatah was illustrated by who wasn't in Qatar Friday. Saudi Arabia and Egypt did not attend. Rather, the Saudis Friday called for a full-fledged summit at the economic meeting of the Arab League on Monday in Kuwait. Saudi Arabia is working closely with Egypt to negotiate a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.

Morocco declined to attend either meeting. "The mere fact of proposing the convening of an Arab summit now gives rise to squabbling and outbidding tactics, even disputes between Arab countries," said Moroccan King Mohammed VI in a statement released to the media.

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