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Europe

EU Leaders Increase Pressure to End Violence in Gaza

European foreign ministers will travel to Israel next week as part of the EU's efforts to secure a ceasefire in Gaza, an EU official said on Wednesday, the fifth day of an Israeli offensive in the Hamas stronghold.

The foreign ministers of France, Spain and Greece at a crisis meeting on Gaza on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008.

The foreign ministers of France, Spain and Greece are working to end the bloodshed

The delegation will be lead by Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister of the Czech Republic which takes over the rotating EU presidency on January 1, the official said. He will be accompanied by his Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will travel to Paris on Thursday

The current French EU presidency says it is still in talks with Israel about ending its strikes in Gaza despite Israel's rejection of a 48-hour ceasefire on Wednesday. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is reportedly considering a trip to the region. Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will visit Paris on Thursday where she is expected to discuss solutions proposed by EU foreign minister to end the violence in Gaza.

Spanish leaders speak out

Also on Wednesday, Spain's foreign minister echoed calls for the international community to maintain pressure on Israel and Hamas to enter an immediate and permanent ceasefire.

"There is a situation of tension, of crisis," Miguel Angel Moratinos told Spanish National Radio. "We must continue to insist, this appeal for an immediate and permanent ceasefire must be maintained. We are now using diplomatic channels and communicating with the Israeli government."

Moratinos added that he hoped efforts by France and the Czech Republic would bear fruit, allowing the EU to "take urgent humanitarian action and to return to the negotiating table."

Middle East topic of New Year's speech

Angela Merkel - Aufzeichnung ihrer Neujahrsansprache

German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her New Year's address.

In her New Year address, German Chancellor Angela Merkel blamed Hamas for the latest violence and said Germany would do all it could to promote peace in the Middle East.

"The terror perpetrated by Hamas is unacceptable," she said in a copy of her speech released to the press on Tuesday. "But we should also not forget there is no rational alternative to the peaceful co-existence of Palestinians and Israelis in two states. This is in the interests of people on both sides."

"The German government will provide whatever assistance it can toward this," she said.

Hundreds march for Palestinian cause

Hundreds of Palestinian sympathizers protested in front of the US and Israeli embassies in The Hague, Netherlands, demanding an end to Israeli strikes against Gaza.

Benji de Levie, board member of the Dutch Palestine Committee said the march sought to draw attention to what he termed the "Israeli strangulation of Gaza."

"We want the Dutch government to speak out against Israel," he said and advocated a consumer boycott of Israeli products.

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen has expressed concern over the violence in the Middle East, urging Israel to exercise restraint to minimize civilian casualties and condemning Hamas for "provocation."

Greece to send humanitarian aid

Officials at the Greek foreign ministry said the country would send two planeloads of humanitarian aid including supplies of blood and medicines to Tel Aviv on January 1. The supplies would then be taken on to the Gaza Strip.

In a statement, the ministry said that the aid for the civilians in Gaza was contributed by the Greek ministries of health and defence, the city of Athens, the Hellenic Red Cross and non-government organizations.

Medical staff in Gaza say the Israeli offensive has killed at least 390 people and wounded more than 1,900 others since it was launched on Saturday.

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