EU leaders commit to deterring Hamas rearmament in Gaza
Six key EU leaders meet with Olmert in Jerusalem; Sarkozy: EU would never harm the security of Israel.
One day after Israel announced a unilateral cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, six key European leaders on Sunday pledged to work to prevent Hamas from rearming.
The commitments were offered both at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit in Egypt and at a meeting in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The six leaders were British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency. They offered to provide troops and technological assistance to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons and terrorists into the Gaza Strip, in cooperation with Egypt and the United States.
The leaders expressed support for the cease-fire in Gaza and for an end to Palestinian rocket fire on southern Israel.
Olmert said that he also received on Saturday a letter from EU leaders pledging cooperation in halting the arms smuggling into Gaza.
At the start of the Jerusalem meeting, Olmert said that Israel has no intention of staying in the Gaza Strip or reconquering it, despite its three-week offensive against Hamas in the coastal territory.
The six leaders met with Olmert following a conference in Sharm al-Sheikh, where they spoke with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. During the meeting, Olmert reiterated his regret over the Palestinian civilians killed and wounded during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
"We did not want to hurt them or their children," he said. "They are the victims of Hamas."
None of the European leaders condemned Israel for these casualties.
After the meeting, Olmert said that Israel would soon withdraw its troops from Gaza.
At a press conference preceding a dinner in honor of the visiting European leaders, Sarkozy vowed that the European Union would never harm the security of Israel.
Sarkozy also said that France would be willing to provide monitors to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza and supply technology to help locate smuggling tunnels.
The French leader urged Israelis and Palestinians to restart peace talks as soon as possible after the Israel Defense Forces withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and called for a summit with the Palestinian Authority to discuss the peace process.
The French president also said that IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held captive by Gaza militants since a cross-border raid in 2006, must be released, adding that he was certain Israel would be willing to free Palestinian prisoners in exchange.
Sarkozy: IDF must leave Gaza as soon as possible
After the Sharm summit, Sarkozy stressed the need for Israel to quickly pull its forces out of Gaza, after three weeks of offensive on the Hamas-ruled territory.
"Israel should state immediately and clearly that if rocket fire will stop, the Israeli army will leave Gaza. There is no other solution to achieve peace," Sarkozy said.
Merkel, for her part, said that Israel has the right to live in peace and not under threats. Merkel added that arms smuggling into Gaza, whether by sea or by land, must be prevented and that Germany was willing to help address that matter if necessary.
Brown said that the European Union will do everything to support the cease-fire, as a step toward achieving a comprehensive peace.
The British prime minister called on Hamas to stop firing rockets on Israel and also expressed willingness to help in the effort to stop weapons smuggling into Gaza. And he urged Israel to open the border crossings into the coastal strip and to allow humanitarian aid in as soon as possible.
Berlusconi, who looked very tired during the press conference in Jerusalem Sunday, said that he was proud of the fact that it was he who put Hamas on the European Union's list of terrorist organizations. Berlusconi also promised that that he would work toward inducting Israel as a full member of the European Union.
The Italian leader also expressed willingness to provide military personnel to battle arms smuggling into Gaza. "When I heard about the rocket fire at Israel, I felt that it was a danger to Italy, and to the entire West," he said.
Zapatero, who had never visited Israel before Sunday, joined his colleagues in voicing his support for Israel, despite the harsh criticism he had expressed toward Israel during the three-week operation in Gaza. "I am moved that the cease-fire was announced when I came to Israel," he said, adding that he hoped for a renewal of the peace process.