Egypt's foreign minister said on Thursday that his country's proposal for a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas is gaining momentum, calling it the only viable way to stop an “intolerable humanitarian situation” in Gaza.
He also expressed frustration that “Palestinian factions” - a clear reference to Hamas - did not share what he described as Egypt's “desire ... to protect the Palestinian people in Gaza” by agreeing to the initiative.
“The only way to protect the people and to avoid additional bloodshed is acceptance of the plan,” Sameh Shukri said on Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press.
“The plan has been widely endorsed by the Arab League, it has been endorsed by the European Union ... and it continues to gain momentum in terms of recognition.”
The minister's remarks came just before Israel and Hamas began observing a five-hour humanitarian ceasefire to allow Gazans to stock up on supplies.
“We hope that the five-hour ceasefire that has been declared will be extended and that all sides accept the Egyptian peace initiative which is on the table now for several days,” Shukri said.
The plan, announced on Monday, requires “unconditional acceptance” of the ceasefire by both sides, to be followed by “unfettered access” to Gaza for humanitarian aid, as well as further talks in Cairo, Shukri said.
The plan was accepted by Israel this week but rejected by Hamas, which said it had never been consulted, a claim Shukri denied.
Egypt “formulated this initiative after very intense consultation which took account of many of the various positions of interest that were expressed by those directly concerned,” he said.
“Had it been accepted by all parties, had it been accepted by Israel, had it been accepted by all factions in Gaza, we would have saved many lives that have been lost unnecessarily,” he said, indirectly blaming Hamas for the continuing bloodshed.
Israel launched the offensive July 8, saying it was a response to weeks of heavy rocket fire out of Hamas-ruled Gaza. More than 230 Palestinians and an Israeli have been killed in 10 days of mainly aerial attacks.
Hamas, which seized Gaza seven years ago, wants international guarantees that the territory's blockade by Israel and Egypt will be eased significantly and that Israel will release Palestinian prisoners.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi was meeting in Cairo on Thursday with Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. A day earlier, Abbas met with the deputy leader of Hamas, Moussa Abu Marzouk.
A Palestinian official in Cairo told AP that Marzouk presented Hamas' demands for a ceasefire, which were also delivered to Jordan and the UN. They included a desire that countries other than Egypt - believed to be Qatar and Turkey - be involved in forging an agreement to end the fighting, a sign of Hamas' mistrust of Cairo.
Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair also has been involved in talks this week with el-Sissi, and met Thursday with Shukri, who denied reports that the former British prime minister is now formally advising the Egyptian government in a private capacity.
Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has often served as a mediator between Israel and Hamas.
But relations between Egypt and Hamas have become fraught with tension following the ouster last year of President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group, of which Hamas is the Palestinian chapter. Egypt has also been at odds with the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood's strongest Arab backer.
Gaza has endured Israeli and Egyptian border blockades to varying degrees since Hamas and other militants seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid in 2006.
The following year Hamas overran the territory after defeating forces loyal to Abbas, who is based in the West Bank. The blockade was intended to keep out weapons and turn Gazans against their militant Hamas rulers.
After Morsi's overthrow last summer, Egypt's new leaders launched a sweeping crackdown on Hamas, shutting down a network of smuggling tunnels along the border that were the Islamic militant group's key economic lifeline - and a weapons supply route.
Cairo says Hamas is responsible for many of Egypt's security problems, including rising militancy in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Gaza. - Sapa-AP