Diplomatic pressure on Israel to end its relentless military assault on Gaza gathered pace last night as its key ally Washington joined European Union foreign ministers in calling for an immediate ceasefire.
The diplomatic push for at least a temporary truce gained momentum amid an international outcry over the mounting deaths of Palestinian civilians from a four-day Israeli blitz that followed the collapse of a truce with the militant Hamas leadership in Gaza.
EU foreign ministers issued a statement choreographing a halt to the bloodiest fighting in Gaza in living memory and a return to peace negotiations as the international diplomatic machine strained to open a window of hope for the 1.5 million residents trapped inside the battered territory.
The EU initiative, decided at an emergency meeting in Paris, was bolstered by the Bush administration starting to apply pressure behind the scenes. The meeting coincided with an indication that the Israeli government may be open to a 48-hour suspension of the military operation that, by last night, had killed more than 360 Palestinians, including at least 62 civilians.
Hamas has responded to the attacks by firing rockets deep into Israel. Beersheba, 25 miles from Gaza, was hit for the first time last night as militants fired 40 rockets across the border.
The EU ministers demanded an "immediate and permanent ceasefire" by Hamas and Israel. They also backed a French call for a "humanitarian truce" that would allow relief aid, fuel and medical supplies to get into Gaza, and the evacuation of the wounded through reopened checkpoints. The Middle East Quartet – consisting of the EU, Russia, the US and the UN – issued a statement that mirrored the main points in the EU declaration, after foreign ministers consulted over the phone.
US President George Bush, who has spared Israel from criticism while blaming Hamas rockets for triggering the Israeli response, spoke for the first time yesterday to the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak; Eygpt is a key Hamas mediator.
Humanitarian agencies have been pressing for some form of lull, partly to make distributing aid easier. The UN refugee agency UNRWA, which provides limited food aid on a rotating basis to Gaza's 750,000 refugees, has been reluctant to call families to pick up food parcels from its 12 distribution centres since Saturday because of the dangers posed by repeated bombing.
The first sign that Israel might respond to the international pressure came with reports that the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, was likely to raise the 48-hour suspension proposal at a Security Cabinet meeting today.
The Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, appeared to resist early consideration of the proposal, declaring: "The Gaza offensive has begun and will not end... until our goals are reached, we are continuing according to the plan."
But international calls for an immediate ceasefire have grown as the death toll among Palestinian civilians has climbed. British diplomats said that the 27 foreign ministers in the EU needed to focus on broader measures that could be accepted by Israel and the Palestinians in order to achieve what was described by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, as a "durable and sustainable" truce.
The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, stressed that as the biggest financial donor to the Palestinians, the EU had a role in the future of Gaza.
It remains to be seen whether Israel feels that it has achieved its strategic goals from its aerial bombing of Gaza in order to agree to a pause.
The EU, which announced the dispatch of a ministerial delegation to the region, also offered the return of EU monitors to the Rafah checkpoint on Egypt's border.
The ministers also looked beyond the issue of a ceasefire, calling for the stepping up of peace negotiations focused on a two-state solution. They also encouraged Palestinian reconciliation while bolstering the moderate Fatah leadership.
Read the EU statement: http://tinyurl.com/9hol9g