France hails Israeli response to ceasefire plan
Israel welcomes a Franco-Egyptian plan but stops short of formally accepting it.PARIS – France's President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday hailed what he described as Israel and the Palestinian Authority's "acceptance of a Franco-Egyptian plan" for a ceasefire in Gaza.
For its part, Israel welcomed a French-backed scheme to beef up border controls on Gaza's southern border with Egypt, but stopped short of formally accepting calls for a halt to its campaign against Hamas militants.
"We can't see the operation stopping in the coming days. We still have to study the details of the Egyptian proposal," a senior Israeli defence official told AFP, adding the military was preparing a further offensive.
In an apparent attempt to nudge Israel along, Sarkozy's office said the French "president warmly welcomes Israel and the Palestinian Authority's acceptance of the Franco-Egyptian plan presented yesterday evening."
The statement was referring to an idea floated Tuesday in Egypt by Sarkozy and his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak, for a renewed ceasefire backed up by measures to halt arms smuggling to Hamas fighters in Gaza.
"The head of state called for this plan to be put in place as quickly as possible in order to halt the suffering of the population," Sarkozy added, in a statement released by his office after his return from Egypt.
Earlier, an Israeli government spokesman had welcomed in principle the Franco-Egyptian initiative, but did not say whether his government formally accepted it nor whether it was ready to enter negotiations with Egypt.
"Israel thanks the Egyptian president and the French president for their efforts to advance the solution to end the terrorist activity from Gaza and stop weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza," Mark Regev said.
"Israel sees positively the dialogue between Egyptians and Israelis in order to advance these issues," he said.
At the same time, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and other senior ministers met to discuss the possible expansion of their ground offensive deeper into Palestinian towns.
"Barak has instructed the army to prepare for the third stage of the operation," the senior defence official said.
Israel has also promised to halt air strikes for three hours per day to allow humanitarian aid to be distributed and the wounded to be evacuated.
Briefing lawmakers, France's minister for human rights, Rama Yade, said her government would work with the United Nations Security Council to try to win worldwide support for the Franco-Egyptian plan.
"The positive response of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to this plan is a matter of great satisfaction to us because this initiative is the only realistic one and ought to see crossing points reopen quickly," she said.
French foreign ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said the European Union and France were ready to help reinforce Egypt's border with southern Gaza by sending monitors to oversee the Rafah crossing point.
This would be done by reviving a suspended EU monitoring mission currently under French command, and could eventually be extended to other crossings into Gaza to allow a lifting of Israel's blockade of the territory, he said.
Israel insists on guarantees that Hamas and other militants will not be able to rearm. Israel says the rockets that Palestinian militants fire at the Jewish state are smuggled in through hundreds of tunnels along the Egyptian border.
[AFP / Expatica]