Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas pressed his rivals in Hamas on Saturday to accept an Egyptian plan to end Israel's war in the Gaza Strip, as a Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo to discuss the proposal.
"We hope that the (Hamas delegation) will reach an agreement without hesitation," Abbas told journalists after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who floated his peace plan on Tuesday.
Hopes for peace are increasingly focused on Egypt's mediation efforts since both Israel and Hamas brushed off a U.N. Security Council resolution on Friday calling for an immediate truce in the fighting.
The Egyptian plan seeks to meet Israel's requirement of preventing weapons going to Gaza through Egyptian tunnels and Hamas's demand for a reopening of Gaza's borders to normal traffic.
Abbas stressed he wanted an international force in Gaza rather than controlling traffic on the Egyptian side of the border, as suggested by European countries.
The border issue
An Israeli defense official said Egypt's plan foresaw forces loyal to Abbas, which were kicked out by Hamas in 2007, redeployed on the Gaza side of the border alongside a bolstered Egyptian force.
Solving the border issue is crucial to ending Israel's onslaught on the Gaza Strip which has killed more than 820 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis have also been killed in the same period.
Under a 2005 deal, Egypt's Rafah crossing with Gaza, the only one to bypass Israel, can only be opened to normal traffic if European Union observers and Palestinian Authority forces are at the border.
But Hamas ousted forces loyal to Abbas from the Gaza Strip in June 2007 and the EU monitors subsequently left, making it impossible legally to keep the border open.
Israel said on Saturday that Egypt had proposed an "upgraded version" of the 2005 deal that would see a beefed-up frontier force loyal to Abbas alongside a strengthened Egyptian border force.
Such a move would require amending the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty limiting Egyptian security forces in the Sinai peninsula, with the Israeli defense official saying the Jewish state "would be in favor" of the proposals.
Offer to send troops
Several EU countries and Turkey have offered to send troops to the border as part of an eventual monitoring mission, but Egypt has reportedly rejected the idea of foreign forces on its borders.
"The situation does not allow us to lose time," Abbas said, expressing hope that Egypt would manage to "iron out" different parties' reservations which he said were "not substantial."
The Hamas delegation, led by Ayman Taha and Jamal Abu Hashem, was to meet Omar Suleiman, Egypt's pointman for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, and make "remarks" on the Egyptian plan, the state news agency MENA reported.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after meeting Mubarak that Berlin would send a team to Egypt in the coming days to discuss ways of offering technical help and expertise to control smuggling.
The U.S. army already has an engineering team supporting Egyptian tunnel-hunting forces on the border, although they have left since the Israeli offensive began.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Abul Gheit, speaking alongside Steinmeier, said efforts to deal with smuggling would have to be matched by a reopening of conventional crossings with the Gaza Strip to allow supplies in.
Egypt has proposed that a Palestinian force loyal to president Mahmud Abbas be deployed to Gaza's border with Egypt to halt arms smuggling as part of a deal to end the war in the Hamas enclave, Israeli officials said.
The plan also calls for the deployment of a beefed-up Egyptian force along the Egyptian side of the border, which would be helped by foreign specialists to destroy smuggling tunnels.
Egypt is now proposing that the Palestinian Authority deploy a larger force with enhanced responsibilities, said a senior government official.
"The Palestinian force would be larger and have more authority in the crossing and along the entire border. It will also have enhanced communications with the PA in (the West Bank political capital of) Ramallah," he said.
"The Palestinian force will patrol the Philadelphi Route (an area that runs all along the Gaza/Egypt border) and prevent smuggling along the border in cooperation with Egypt."
At the same time, Cairo is proposing that it deploy more forces along its border with Gaza, a move which would require amending the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace deal which limits the number of Egyptian troops in the Sinai peninsula.
The Egyptian forces would work in cooperation with a foreign engineering corps which would locate and destroy smuggling tunnels along the border, he said.