Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak said Monday that a longer-term ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas could come into effect as early as next week, as tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied in support of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), while its West Bank leaders railed against the Hamas in Gaza.
Mubarak was speaking in Paris after briefing his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy on Cairo's efforts to mediate a truce in the Gaza conflict through indirect talks, following last month's 22-day Israeli massive offensive.
"Perhaps next week," the Egyptian leader told reporters when asked about the chances of a more permanent ceasefire. "We discussed the date when the situation could become calmer, maybe from next week."
A French official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Paris and Cairo were pushing for a more formal ceasefire for "a year, 18 months if possible."
Gaza border crossings, Shalit
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Israel refuse to negotiate directly with each other. They announced unilateral ceasefires on Jan. 18 after the fierce conflict that left around 1,330 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.
Israel has carried out sporadic air and artillery strikes on Gaza since the theoretical end of hostilities and Palestinian fighters have fired dozens of rockets and mortar shells into Israel.
Egypt, with French backing, has been talking to representatives of both sides in the hope of developing a longer-term framework under which Hamas attacks would cease and Israel would lift its blockade of Gaza.
An official in Sarkozy's office said that the truce could also include an undertaking by Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who holds joint Franco-Israeli nationality, and was captured in Gaza in June 2007.
On Saturday, a spokesman for Hamas said the Palestinian Islamist movement expects Israel to agree on reopening border crossings into the Gaza Strip "within the next few days."
Israel, which controls all but one of Gaza's border crossings, has kept the densely populated strip closed to all but essential supplies since June 2007, when Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian faction Fatah.
In the meantime, demonstrators filled the streets in the centre of the West Bank town of Ramallah, the political headquarters of Palestinian president and PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Demonstrators carried Palestinian flags and portraits of Abbas and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, as PLO leaders slammed Hamas's call for a new organization to lead the Palestinian struggle.
"The great masses have come to Ramallah today because of their deep convictions regarding the necessity of preserving the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people," Tayeb Abdelrahim, a senior Palestinian Authority official close to Abbas, said in a speech.
He then launched into a criticism of Hamas, referring to "fascist powers" that sought to "hijack the history of the Palestinian struggle" and who were "shackled to foreign and regional agendas".
"Hamas and their plots will end up in the dustbin of history," he said.
Hamas's exiled political chief Khaled Meshaal has called for an alternative to the PLO that would include Hamas and the radical Islamic Jihad group.
"The Palestine Liberation Organization in its current form does not represent any more a point of reference for the Palestinians," Meshaal said last month, calling it "a centre of division for the Palestinian household."
The PLO, recognized internationally as the sole representative of the Palestinian cause since 1974, has held formal peace talks with Israel since 1993 in pursuit of a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict.
Hamas and Abbas's Fatah party -- the most powerful group within the PLO -- have been deeply divided since the takeover of Gaza, a rift that has widened since Israel's offensive against the enclave last month.