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Europe

In Gaza Talks With EU, Israel Stresses End to Arms Smuggling

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told her EU counterparts that is willing to reopen border crossings into the Gaza Strip for humanitarian reasons, but insisted weapons smuggling to Hamas must be halted.

Far left, Tzipi Livni, with with EU's Foreign Affairs chief Javier Solana (center) and EU Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner, right, on a discussion podium

Livni, left, was in Brussels to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza

The Israeli top diplomat was in Brussels on Wednesday, Jan. 21, to hold talks with EU foreign ministers.

"In order to help in answering the humanitarian need in the Gaza Strip, we are willing to cooperate in this as far as it is needed," Livni told reporters on Wednesday.

She maintained that "the right of Israel to defend itself includes not only defending itself against the firing of missiles, but also in terms of smuggling of weapons."

Humanitarian aid in focus

Wednesday evening's talks were called by the EU in a bid to secure the immediate access of humanitarian aid into Gaza and to start discussions on reviving the stalled Middle East peace process.

Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg of the Czech Republic, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, measured the meeting's success by Livni's assurances that "everything will be done from the Israeli side to have an effective humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip."

Tzipi Livni gestures while speaking in Brussels

Livni insists Israel's must defend itself against smuggled weapons

Livni focused on the need to stop the alleged armament of Hamas by Iran via Egyptian territory.

"From our perspective, we achieved ... an understanding about the need to give an answer to the smuggling of weapons to the Gaza Strip," she said.

Monitors still await entry

No deal was believed to have been reached on how many crossings should be reopened, for how long or how they should be monitored.

The EU maintained a small monitoring team at the Rafah crossing from 2005-07, when the monitors had to be withdrawn after Hamas violently seized control of the coastal enclave.

Some 40 EU monitors are now on standby in nearby Ashkelon, Israel, waiting to be redeployed to the Gaza border.

While EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said that his office would spare no effort to bring aid to Gaza civilians, none of the participants at Wednesday's meeting announced the monitors' imminent return to Rafah.

'International values'

Livni said that the ceasefire was still being "tested" and again rejected direct talks with Hamas. She dismissed calls for international prosecutors to try Israeli military officers for war crimes.

"The Israeli army works according to international values," said Livni, insisting that a distinction had to be made between those who are "killed by mistake" and terrorists who "aim and fire at civilians."

The meeting in Brussels took place amid tight security, with police in riot gear keeping about 100 pro-Palestinian protesters well away from the building where the talks were held.

EU seeks common ground

Ban Ki-moon boarding a plane

Ban Ki-moon visited Gaza -- and wants action

Livni arrived about an hour after the rest of the attendees to give her EU counterparts time to forge a common position.

Prior to the meeting, differences had emerged among EU members about the need to hold direct talks with Hamas.

"There is no possibility of reaching a permanent peace without everyone getting around the same table," said Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb. "No comprehensive solution can be taken without Hamas."

Schwarzenberg had told the European Parliament as recently as Tuesday that no formal contacts should be held with Hamas until the organization renounced terrorism.

The talks in Brussels came a day after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon became the highest-ranking foreign official to visit Gaza and assess first hand the damage caused by the three-week conflict with Israel.

Further talks planned

Back at United Nations headquarters Wednesday in New York, Ban told the Security Council that a thorough investigation should be made of Israeli attacks that struck several UN facilities in Gaza during the conflict. The responsible parties must be held accountable, he said.

Brussels diplomats said they were in close contact with new US President Barack Obama, who earlier Wednesday - his first full day in office - called four key Middle East leaders to promise his immediate engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

EU foreign ministers were to hold a separate talks Sunday in Brussels with representatives from Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority.

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