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Europe

EU Presidency Hardens Tone as Israel Pursues War with Hamas

The Czech EU presidency urged Israel and Hamas to avoid a further escalation of the violence in the Gaza Strip Friday, saying it was "deeply concerned" at the situation and urged the two sides to embrace a UN truce deal.

A collage of the EU and Israel flag behind an Israeli soldier

The EU is pressing hard for a ceasefire and the protection of humanitarian convoys

"The Presidency is deeply concerned over the continuing Israeli military action in Gaza and the continuation of indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel," the EU presidency said in a statement.

"We call on all parties to restrain from acts that further escalate an already tense situation," it added.

The EU presidency called on all parties to fully implement a truce order from the UN Security Council.

A defiant Israel pounded Gaza with bombs and shells Friday, vowing to pursue its war on Hamas despite the UN decision, amid warnings the population was running out of food.

The European Commission meanwhile condemned "in the strongest terms" the attacks on UN humanitarian convoys and personnel in Gaza.

"Other humanitarian partners are subject to similar and unacceptable incidents and as a consequence are forced to reduce or stop their operations. „These activities are crucial in bringing essential assistance to the suffering population of Gaza," EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said in a separate statement.

Humanitarian crisis prompts strong EU tone

The EU presidency, which the Czech Republic assumed on January 1, also voiced its deep concern at the attacks on humanitarian convoys.

"We call on Israel to work and closely coordinate with humanitarian organisations.

A Palestinian family reacts as they rush past a burning building after an Israeli missile strike in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip

The EU is very concerned about the humanitarian situation

"The Presidency firmly believes that only a full and immediate ceasefire will allow the delivery and distribution of the large quantities of humanitarian aid that Gaza desperately needs and for the resumption of basic services," the statement said.

The EU presidency "deplores the ongoing hostilities, which have led to an increasing number of civilian casualties in Gaza and Israel," it added.

However the statement also said the EU "shares Israel's concerns over the smuggling of weapons into Gaza," and was examining ways to assist in helping secure the border, "within the framework of an international mission."

The EU is ready to redeploy its former mission at the Rafah crossing point from the Gaza Strip to Egypt but also called on Israel to open all its border crossings with Gaza "to allow the regular and predictable movement of persons, humanitarian aid and commercial goods".

"We strongly believe that a viable Gazan economy is essential for a sustainable peace," it said.

The UN Security Council also urged Israel and Hamas to immediately end the Gaza conflict as heavy air strikes and rocket attacks continued through Friday as Israeli leaders met to discuss a UN resolution.

Israel's security cabinet decided on Friday to continue its military campaign in the Gaza Strip, Israel Radio reported, in spite of a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.

The death toll in the two-week-old offensive has risen to almost 800. Palestinian emergency services said Friday's strikes killed 12 civilians, and that as many as half of the total number of victims so far were civilians.

Israeli cabinet rejects outside interference

Caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a statement that Israel "has never agreed that any outside body would determine its right to defend the security of its citizens, adding that the military would continue "operations in order to defend Israeli citizens and will carry out the missions with which it has been assigned in the operation."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni

Both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rejected the resolution

Olmert convened his inner security cabinet Friday morning to discuss Israel's response to the resolution.

Israel also maintains an option, analysts said, to go to "phase three," which would mean sending more ground troops deeper into populated areas.

Fighting continued even after the resolution was passed with Israel conducting airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, killing 11 Palestinians. Over 30 rockets and mortars were fired by Palestinian militants at Israel, with one landing in an empty school, local media reported.

Hamas agrees

Hamas had already rejected the resolution, with spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri telling Arabic news channel al-Jazeera from Yemen, "We are not concerned by the decision because Hamas was not consulted and it did not take into consideration the interest and demands of our people in Gaza."

"This resolution does not suit us because it is not in the best interest of the Palestinian people," Raafat Morra of Hamas told AFP news agency in Beirut. "This resolution does not take into account the aspiration of the Palestinian people."

The 15-nation UN Security Council had voted 14-0 late Thursday, with the United States abstaining, to adopt the resolution demanding a ceasefire.

The vote capped three days of intense, closed-door negotiations at United Nations headquarters to hammer out a compromise text acceptable to the permanent members with veto power -- the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and foreign ministers Bernard Kouchner of France and David Miliband of Britain drafted the ceasefire text together with Arab ministers and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.

US calls for support of Egyptian peace plan

Rice said despite her abstention that the United States supports the contents of the resolution. She in particular called on the UN to support the peace initiative made by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Rice said the US supported the ceasefire plan, although it abstained from voting

Those efforts, however, appear to have to run into trouble because of disagreements with Israel over how to secure the border to prevent Hamas from rearming, diplomats said.

Israeli and European diplomats, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Egypt had objections to proposals for foreign forces deploying on the Egyptian side of its 15-km (9-mile) border with the Gaza Strip.

Instead of foreign troops, Cairo told Israel and the European Union, it was prepared to accept only increased international technical assistance to help its own forces combat arms smuggling through tunnels dug across the border. Israel is demanding the tunnel traffic end as part of a ceasefire deal.

"The truce talks are going nowhere at the moment," said a senior European diplomat involved in the effort. "There is a growing sense that the Egyptian-French plan is not going to work."

UN human rights chief calls for independent investigation

United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for an independent investigation and warned that some reported violations may constitute war crimes.

According to news agency AFP Pillay told a special session of the UN Human Rights Council that Israel and Palestinian militants had an obligation under international humanitarian law to care for the wounded, and to protect ambulances, hospitals and health workers.

The former South African judge also slammed rocket attacks by Palestinian militants from Gaza on Israel as unacceptable.

Schools, hospitals, power and water supplies in the Gaza Strip had been driven to breaking point and must not be jeopardized by continued attacks, while civilians must be spared under international humanitarian law, she added.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights underlined that the conditions for civilians in the Gaza Strip "constitute egregious violations of human rights".

Arms smuggling still a key issue

Protesters shout slogans against the Israeli offensive in Gaza holding banners that read 'Justice for Palestine', 'No to State Terrorism' during a demonstration outside the Spanish Foreign Ministry in Madrid Saturday, Jan. 3

The offensive has sparked protests across Europe

According to the UN resolution, a durable ceasefire would require "arrangements and guarantees" for its implementation. Those arrangements include a ban on the smuggling of illicit weapons and ammunition, the sustained reopening of crossings into Gaza and the support of an initiative by Egypt and other regional and international efforts that are underway to end the conflict, which enters its 14th day on Friday.

The text endorsed the Egyptian initiative, which was made public Tuesday by President Mubarak when he met with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and later with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Cairo.

The initiative has received support from the European Union, the United States and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

While Mubarak gave the green light to the initiative, he has so far refused to open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, fearing that it would bring a great number of Palestinian refugees into Egyptian territory.

Israel has called for closing the reported hundreds of tunnels across Gaza's borders, which had allowed the smuggling of an arsenal of missiles used by Hamas to hit Israel.

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