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.

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

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.

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.

Egyptian officials resisted and accused Hamas's leadership of bearing responsibility for the fighting because of the attacks on Israel.

The spat is a reminder of the longstanding tension between Hamas and Egypt, which worries that the Palestinian Islamists could strengthen domestic opposition through ties to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, that country's main opposition group.

At the same time, the war has focused attention on Egypt's inability to stop the burgeoning weapons traffic underneath its border with Gaza. Israeli officials have said that a condition to accepting a new truce is establishing a way to stop the weapons traffic through the tunnels.

Though Egypt recently had been working with US advisers and implementing new technology to uncover the tunnels, the smuggling industry was profitable for some in the Egyptian border town of Rafah, says Bruce Maddy Weitzman, an expert on North Africa at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.

"Not only can [Egypt] not afford to fail, but the international community wants them to be a central actor. They have to be involved in any cease-fire agreement. Their border is a central part of what is going to be discussed," he says.

Egypt has called for an immediate halt in the fighting to be followed by talks with Israel and the Palestinians on how to prevent a resumption of the fighting. But Hamas spokesman Mr. Barhoum said the Islamic militants would only talk after Israel pulled back its forces from Gaza and unsealed the border crossings that have been used to enforce a stifling blockade of Gaza.

A new truce hinges on an agreement between the sides about opening border crossings into Gaza – including Egypt's Rafah crossing – and a mechanism to ensure a halt in weapons smuggling in tunnels running between Egypt and their Palestinian neighbors.

Egypt has said that it will only agree to open up the Rafah terminal if European monitors and the PA security personnel return to Gaza – an unlikely development after Hamas usurped security control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. The European Union said Wednesday it was prepared to help Egypt prevent arms smuggling along its border with Gaza as part of a cease-fire with Israel but played down the need for foreign ground forces.

A Western diplomat says that despite the appearance of diplomatic progress from Egypt and France, the US may need to become more actively engaged in the process before there's an accord. "A diplomatic solution is some way off," says the diplomat. "I don't necessarily think the French-Egyptian proposal is going to be the final one."

• Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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