French President Nicolas Sarkozy told President Shimon Peres on Monday that the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip does not strengthen the hand of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and that all parties ought to agree to a temporary lull in the fighting so as to allow humanitarian supplies to reach the population in Gaza.

Sarkozy, on a peacemaking mission to the Middle East, called on Monday for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip "as soon as possible".

Addressing a news conference in Ramallah with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Sarkozy said the European Union was working to support efforts to end the bloodshed. He said he would tell Israeli leaders later in the day that the violence must stop. He also condemned Hamas' actions as "irresponsible and unpardonable" for its attacks on Israel.

Sarkozy told three Lebanese newspapers that Hamas bore "a heavy responsibility for the sufferings of the Palestinian people" and that its rocket attacks had to stop.

Sarkozy's comments are to be published Monday, the same day he arrives in Israel as part of the French and European effort to broker a cease-fire to end the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The French president also condemned the Israel Defense Forces ground offensive and urged Israel to let humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

How France, which formally handed over the EU presidency at midnight on Dec. 31, plans to help broker a cease-fire remains unclear, but Sarkozy appears to be counting on his personal influence with both Israel and Arab leaders to help.

With U.S. President George W. Bush counting out the days before he formally departs on Jan. 20, Barack Obama still to take office and a lower-key Czech Republic now holding the EU reins, Sarkozy sees a leadership gap.

"No other leader has really put forward any initiatives," French Budget Minister Eric Woerth told Europe 1 radio on Sunday, a day before Sarkozy's trip.

"I think he is the only one capable of taking an initiative like this," he said.

After handling crises from Georgia to the near-meltdown of the bank system, Sarkozy ended his tenure in the EU presidency with a global profile not enjoyed by any European leader since the early days of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"France, because it has been able to build up relations of confidence and friendship with all the parties, has a particular responsibility," he said in the interview with the Al-Nahar, As-Safir and L'Orient le Jour newspapers.

Israel's ground invasion of the Gaza Strip on Saturday complicates Sarkozy's already sensitive two-day visit, which starts Monday and will take him from Cairo to Beirut, via Ramallah, Jerusalem and Damascus.

The trip will not be made any easier by having to tread carefully around a separate visit at the same time led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who will formally be speaking for the EU as a whole.

Big pro-Palestinian demonstrations in France, at least one of which ended with violent, if limited, clashes between police and protestors, have also underlined the domestic tensions that could be stoked by the crisis at home.

While French diplomats have been scrupulous in deferring publicly to the Czech EU presidency and Sarkozy made sure to speak with European partners like Germany's Angela Merkel or Spain's Jose Luis Zapatero, he believes the scale of the crisis goes beyond institutional niceties.

"The emergency is compelling us to act," one French diplomat told Reuters.

But conscious that his hyperactive style and refusal to stand by while events unfold has often been criticized as putting show over substance, he has been uncharacteristically quiet about the crisis in recent days.

"The less we talk about it, the better it is," he told a small group of French journalists last week. "It's very complicated."

Hamas to send delegation to Egypt for diplomatic talks

Hamas plans to send a delegation to Egypt on Monday for the first diplomatic talks since the launch of a 10-day-old Israel Defense Forces offensive in the Gaza Strip, an official of the Islamist group said.

Hamas official Ayman Taha said a Hamas delegation would head to Cairo "answering an Egyptian invitation to hold discussions."

A senior Palestinian official said on Friday that Egypt had launched contacts with Hamas to achieve a truce.

The Hamas visit to Egypt would coincide with the expected visit there of French President Sarkozy, who has also launched a European-backed diplomatic push for a cease-fire.

Taha did not say whether the delegation would include Hamas members from Gaza or from elsewhere.