France and Egypt announced an initiative to stop the fighting in Gaza early today as Israel agreed to a “humanitarian corridor” for vital supplies.
The countries’ presidents did not release details of the proposal, saying only that it involved an immediate ceasefire to permit humanitarian aid into Gaza and talks to settle the differences between Israel and the Islamic militants of Hamas who rule the small coastal territory.
Israeli officials in Jerusalem would not comment immediately on the announcement, which came amid diplomatic efforts by the US and other nations to resolve the conflict that has seen 600 people killed in 11 days.
US secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed the initiative, but warned that no agreement would succeed unless it halted Hamas rocket attacks on Israel and arms smuggling into Gaza.
Yesterday US president-elect Barack Obama broke his silence on the crisis, saying that “the loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern for me”.
At a news conference in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak said the truce proposal offered by him and French president Nicolas Sarkozy envisaged an immediate end to combat, so humanitarian supplies could safely enter Gaza.
He said the plan also called for an urgent meeting between Israel and the Palestinians to discuss ways to resolve the conflict and provide necessary guarantees to ensure fighting did not erupt again.
But there was no indication of the plan’s chances. Mr Sarkozy said he saw it as a “small hope” for ending the Gaza violence.
Mr Sarkozy said he had spoken to Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and was awaiting a response.
In Jerusalem, Mr Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev said: “We are holding off comments on that for the time being.”
At United Nations headquarters, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, in New York for a UN Security Council meeting on the Gaza crisis, welcomed the proposal.
In yesterday’s fighting Israeli mortar shells exploded near a UN school sheltering hundreds of people displaced by the onslaught on Hamas militants. At least 30 Palestinians died.
Israel’s military said its shelling at the school – the deadliest single episode since Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza on Saturday after a week of air bombardment – was a response to mortar fire from within the school and said Hamas militants were using civilians as cover.
Two residents who spoke by telephone said they saw a small group of militants firing mortar rounds from a street near the school, where 350 people had gathered to escape the shelling.
Majed Hamdan, an Associated Press photographer, rushed to the scene shortly after the attacks. At the hospital, he said, many children were among the dead.
An Israeli defence official said it appeared the military used 120-mm shells, among the largest mortar rounds.
UN officials demanded an investigation of the shelling. The carnage, which included 55 wounded, added to a surging civilian toll and drew mounting international pressure for Israel to end the offensive against Hamas.
Under the “humanitarian corridor” plan, put forward by the Israeli defence ministry, Israel would suspend attacks in certain areas to allow people to get supplies.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon called the Israeli bombardment of UN buildings in Gaza “totally unacceptable”, but added that it was “equally unacceptable” for militants to take actions that endangered Palestinian civilians, referring to the practice of militants making attacks from residential areas.
In Gaza, UN official Christopher Gunness hoped an investigation would show whether militants were using UN schools for weapons or activities.
“It is just not in our interests to have militants, whether in war or peace, in our installations,” he said.
Some 15,000 Palestinians have packed the UN’s 23 Gaza schools because their homes were destroyed or to flee the violence. The UN provided the Israeli military with GPS co-ordinates for all of them.