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Anne Penketh: Egypt's oldest fixer quietly woos Hamas

Egypt has emerged as the power most likely to hold the key to a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, thanks to the Egyptians' privileged role as a go-between in the past.

The man at the centre of Egypt's indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel is a wily old bird who has been doing the leg-work while President Hosni Mubarak and Nicolas Sarkozy of France will claim the credit for any ceasefire agreement.

Lieutenant-General Omar Suleiman, the influential head of Egyptian intelligence, has been the trusted confidant of Israel and Hamas ever since he helped the Israelis complete their 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. He has been trying to negotiate the release of the Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Hamas in 2006.

But negotiating a "sustainable" ceasefire in Gaza between the Hamas militants bent on Israel's destruction and the Israeli government has been the toughest assignment yet for General Suleiman, now in his seventies. He held talks in Cairo on Tuesday with two Hamas leaders based in Syria, Emad Al-Alami and Mohammad Nasr, in the hope of pressing the Islamists to accept a ceasefire and agree to Palestinian reconciliation. General Suleiman, who generally does not shy from publicity, said nothing afterwards. But a member of his delegation said: "The message Hamas is getting [from Suleiman] is that without a ceasefire the Palestinians will be in grave danger and everything they have achieved so far will be gone."

Egypt believes that Hamas miscalculated by taking on the Israeli military machine which killed 670 Palestinians in 11 days – something which could end up having a political cost for the Hamas leadership inside Gaza. The Israeli dead number less than a dozen. Hamas was warned by Egypt that its militants were playing into Israel's hands by keeping up the fight, and risked losing any chance of achieving a Palestinian state.

The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, stressed before the talks this week that the Egyptian mediators wanted them to achieve reconciliation between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. President Mubarak has been walking a tightrope as the Israeli onslaught in Gaza intensified. His authoritarian government cracked down strongly as Egyptian protesters mobilised by the banned opposition Muslim Brotherhood – of which Hamas is an offshoot – gathered in the streets to protest against the Israeli offensive. A total of 50 Muslim Brotherhood activists were arrested for organising the protests.

Within the Arab League, Egypt – which has a peace treaty with Israel – came under attack for failing to open its border to Palestinians attempting to flee Gaza and was accused of "selling out" to the Jewish state. But Mr Mubarak hit back against his critics. In an unprecedented condemnation of Israel's actions during a televised address, he accused the Israeli military of "savage aggression" in Gaza, saying that its "bloodstained hands are stirring up feelings of enormous anger". But he also pointed out that Egypt had warned Hamas repeatedly "that rejecting the truce would push Israel to aggression against Gaza".

Egypt has long suspected that Israel wants it to take over responsibility for the Palestinians from Gaza, which is why the authorities resisted opening the border. Egypt fears that by separating Gaza from the West Bank, the Israelis would forge ahead with a peace agreement with the Palestinians ruled from Ramallah, having washed their hands of the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza.

Peace deal: The key principles

* Immediate ceasefire by both Israel and Palestinian factions to allow safe passage for humanitarian aid.

* Egypt would invite both sides to a meeting to reach agreement and ensure that the violence does not recur. Measures would include reopening of the borders and lifting the blockade.

* Egypt would invite the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to talks to achieve national reconciliation.