Obama backs Middle East truce plan

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Egypt has won powerful backing from Barack Obama for its ceasefire plan to end the bloody conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

The US president told Muslim-Americans that he was hopeful the proposal could restore calm in the wake of a deadly wave of violence.

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to facilitate a return to the 2012 ceasefire,” he said at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. “We are encouraged that Egypt has made a proposal to accomplish that goal.”

His upbeat assessment came hours after Egypt presented a plan to end a week of heavy fighting that has killed at least 185 people. Both Israel and the Palestinians are seriously considering the proposal, which marks the first sign of a breakthrough in international efforts to end the conflict.

Mr Obama said the US had been “very clear that Israel has the right to defend itself” against an onslaught of rockets launched by Hamas militants into the country.

But he also lamented the death and injury of Palestinian civilians in Gaza during Israel’s military response, urging that civilians be protected and warning against further escalation by either side.

He spoke to dozens of Muslim-Americans and diplomats from predominantly Muslim countries at the White House’s annual iftar, or Ramadan evening meal. The only Muslim member of Congress, Democrat Keith Ellison, and Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, were also on the guest list.

“More broadly, the situation in Gaza reminds us, again, that the status quo is unsustainable,” Mr Obama said. “The only path to true security is a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Before the dinner, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee called for a boycott of all government-hosted iftar dinners, objecting to US support for Israel during the conflict and alleged government spying on Muslim-Americans.

Meanwhile US secretary of state John Kerry, who was expected in the region today, has decided against an immediate trip to the Middle East to push diplomatic efforts towards the ceasefire.

Mr Kerry, currently in Vienna for talks with Iran’s foreign minister and European partners, has been considering whether to extend his current diplomatic swing of Asia and Europe to Israel, Egypt and elsewhere in the region.

 But US officials now say he will end the nine-day trip today and head home.

 Hamas’ top leader in Gaza confirmed there was “diplomatic movement”, while Israel’s policy-making Security Cabinet will discuss the proposal today. Arab foreign ministers discussed the plan last night at an emergency meeting in Cairo.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry announced the three-step plan starting at 9am (7am BST), with a ceasefire to go into effect within 12 hours of “unconditional acceptance” by the two sides. That would be followed by the opening of Gaza’s border crossings and talks in Cairo between the sides within two days.

Israel launched the offensive on July 8, saying it was a response to weeks of heavy rocket fire out of Hamas-ruled Gaza. The Health Ministry in Gaza said 185 people, including dozens of civilians, have been killed, and more than 1,000 wounded.

There have been no Israelis killed, although several have been wounded by rocket shrapnel, including two sisters aged 11 and 13. Before the Egyptian announcement, there appeared to be no slowdown in the fighting, with Hamas for the first time launching an unmanned drone into Israeli airspace that was shot down.

The violence followed the kidnappings and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last month, as well as the subsequent kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager in an apparent revenge attack, along with Israeli raids against Hamas militants and infrastructure in the West Bank.

Israel says the goal of the military campaign is to restore quiet to its south, which has absorbed hundreds of rocket strikes, and that any ceasefire would have to include guarantees of an extended period of calm.

Hamas says it will not accept “calm for calm”. The group is demanding an easing of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has ground Gaza’s economy to a standstill and that Israel release dozens of prisoners arrested in a recent West Bank crackdown following the abduction of the Israeli youths.

With the death toll mounting, both sides have come under increasing international pressure to halt the fighting.

Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shukri said there was “no alternative but return to the truce” of November 2012 and added that Egypt contacted all the parties, including the Palestinian leadership, different Palestinian factions, and Israeli authorities in addition to Arab and international parties. Such contacts led to shaping up the proposal which called for a ceasefire.

“Egypt stresses the international responsibility towards what is happening in Palestine,” he said.

Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader in Gaza, confirmed there was “diplomatic movement”, but added: “The problem is not going back to the agreement on calm because we want this aggression to stop. The siege must stop and Gaza people need to live in dignity.”

An Israeli official said prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu would convene his Security Cabinet to discuss the proposal, but cabinet member Naftali Bennett said he would oppose the plan, calling it “good for Hamas and bad for Israel”.

“A ceasefire at the present time shows the government’s weakness,” he said. “A ceasefire now will create a bigger campaign against the south of the country and more rocket attacks in another year.”

Egypt, the first Arab state to reach peace with Israel, often serves as a mediator between Israel and Hamas. In the 2012 fighting, Egypt’s then-president Mohammed Morsi brokered a ceasefire, using the influence his Muslim Brotherhood held with Hamas, its ally.

But since last year’s military coup in Egypt that ousted Mr Morsi, Egypt’s new leaders have cracked down on Hamas by nearly shutting a network of smuggling tunnels along the border that were Hamas’ key economic lifeline – and supply route for its weapons.

Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the rival forces of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. With the economy stagnant and Hamas unable to pay the salaries of its thousands of civil servants, the group recently agreed to back a unity government under Mr Abbas’ leadership, but Hamas remains in firm control of Gaza.

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