Arab League pushes for UN draft on ceasefire

Envoys also want Security Council resolution to call for opening of Gaza's blocked borders and deployment of international peacekeepers.

Amr Moussa, left, Arab League Secretary-General, talks with  U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon before the start of a meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers Committee on Palestine,  Monday, Jan. 5, 2009 at United Nations headquarters.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) *** Local Caption ***  UNMA113_UN_MIDEAST_ISRAELI_PALESTINIANS.jpg
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New York // Arab leaders stepped up efforts to promote a draft Security Council resolution calling for an end to bloodshed in Gaza, but analysts argue that Israel's military offensive will likely remain shielded by the diplomatic cloak of the United States. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, accompanied top Arab League statesmen in the UN's 15-nation body yesterday in a high-profile attempt to mobilise international efforts to end the war in Gaza.

Mr Abbas, together with Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary general, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Prince Saud bin Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, are drafting a resolution that calls for Israel to immediately cease aggression in Gaza. A separate Libya-backed draft resolution similarly seeking an end to hostilities in the Gaza Strip was rejected by the United States during emergency meetings on Saturday night on the grounds that Hamas was unlikely to abandon violence.

Yesterday, a Hamas delegation headed by Emad al Alami and Mohammed Nasr from Hamas's Syrian-based political leadership, was in Cairo to discuss an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire with Israel. The talks represented the first such contact since fighting began, but hopes of a truce appear dim, Agence France-Presse reported. The country's influential intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, was reported to be urging Mr al Alami and Mr Nasr to get Hamas to cooperate on international efforts to end the conflict.

Arab envoys embarked upon two days of painstaking negotiations with Security Council members and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, from Monday, while Israeli tanks, planes and ground forces continued to pound Gaza. Israel says it launched air raids on Dec 27 to end Hamas rocket attacks against its southern cities and towns. Israel says the ground offensive, which began on Saturday after a week of air attacks, will continue until it is safe.

During a series of closed-door meetings at UN headquarters, diplomats sought to negotiate a draft resolution that was acceptable to both Arabs and what many perceive as a diplomatic alliance between the US and Israel. Mr Ban criticised Hamas for launching "completely unacceptable" rocket attacks on Israel, while branding Israel's military onslaught as "clearly excessive". The world's top diplomat called on international actors to "do more" and demanded that the Security Council "should live up to its responsibilities under the UN charter and bring this crisis to an end and establish a durable, permanent peace".

During a scheduled meeting yesterday with George W Bush, the US president, Mr Ban told reporters he would "stress the importance of bringing this situation to an immediate halt". Aside from the central issue of ending Israel's military onslaught, diplomats have discussed other concerns any resolution should address. Mr Moussa said these included the opening of Gaza's blocked borders and the deployment of an international monitoring force.

"We, on the Arab side, consider that what is going on is a naked aggression against the population of Gaza," Mr Moussa said. "The main idea is to protect the Palestinian population? under an international eye." France's ambassador to the UN, Jean-Maurice Ripert, who currently holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council, said he was "trying to build confidence among the member states" and broker a deal.

France's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, was expected to join his British counterpart, David Miliband, in the council chamber for high-level talks yesterday afternoon. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also announced her intention to join the negotiations. Mr Bush has indicated continued allegiance with Israel, saying on Monday that he understood its "desire to protect itself, and that the situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas".

Mr Moussa expressed concern that the United States would seek to stall negotiations at UN headquarters while Israel continued operations in Gaza, arguing that the Arab bloc was doing its best to present a "balanced resolution". "I hope they will not block the resolution," Mr Moussa said. "We want a resolution of the Security Council that will help redress the situation in Gaza and save the civilians that are under constant attack by the Israelis."

But analysts question whether Arab efforts to draft a ceasefire will garner the necessary US support, with some arguing that the Bush administration is providing diplomatic cover while Israeli troops demolish Hamas's military infrastructure. A policy briefing published this week by the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution think tank, speaks of "Washington's unhelpful and perilous efforts to slow things down", describing the "absence of effective mediation" as contributing to the escalation of violence.

Steven Cook, a regional analyst from the Council on Foreign Relations, described as "plausible" US stalling of Security Council negotiations to provide diplomatic cover for pre-planned Israeli military operations. "We have seen similar situations before," notably in the invasion of Lebanon in 2006, Mr Cook said. "They were delaying work towards a ceasefire in the hope that the Israelis would break Hizbollah."

The analyst predicted discussions at UN headquarters were unlikely to yield real solutions to the violence, simply providing an opportunity for Arab foreign ministers "to put on a show" for their domestic populations by "travelling to New York to the UN and banging on the table".