News24

Tunnels 'key to Gaza ceasefire'

2009-01-06 18:56

London - Cutting off Gaza's smuggling tunnels from Egypt could secure an immediate ceasefire, Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair said on Tuesday, while warning that Israel was otherwise in for a protracted campaign.

The former British prime minister said the international community wanted dialogue with the Gaza Strip's rulers Hamas, but they had to end violence first.

The Quartet, comprising the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States, is struggling to mediate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

"There are circumstances in which we could get an immediate ceasefire," Blair told BBC radio in Jerusalem.

"Those circumstances focus very much around clear action to cut off the supply of arms and money through the tunnels that go from Egypt into Gaza.

"If there were strong, clear, definitive action on that then I think that gives us the best context to get an immediate ceasefire and start to change this situation.

"That is the one basis on which you can bring a quick halt to this, otherwise I think we're into a more protracted campaign."

Dialogue

And he added: "The Egyptians, in principle, are prepared to do this, they want to do it, they recognise it's in their own interests as well.

"The question is, can this be put together in such a way that we get the immediate ceasefire that people want to see, and then we have to address the longer term question of how you get Palestinian unity."

Blair said most people in the international community - himself included - wanted to get into a dialogue with Hamas, but there had to be a set of common principles of agreement before doing so.

Citing his experiences resolving the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, he said discussions with paramilitaries could only have taken place "on the basis that there were certain key principles that everyone understood.

"One of those principles was that there should be the pursuit of political objectives exclusively through peaceful means," he said.

"It's very hard to do this if you've got an organisation like Hamas that still says that we're perfectly justified in sending suicide bombers to kill innocent civilians in Israel."

Blair said returning Gaza to "some sort of civilisation" and reuniting it with the West Bank was "the only solution in the end".

'It's hell'

He added, however, that it was "really, really difficult to judge" whether Hamas was prepared to strike a deal.

"The truth is for anyone living in Gaza, it's hell. It's bound to be. You've got a situation where you're in an effective warzone," he said.

Blair said that Barack Obama, who becomes US president on January 20, could achieve a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The most important thing for the new administration, as with the international community, is to grip this, focus on it," he said.

"It is, in my view, absolutely central to the security not just of this part of the world but of all the world and we've got to grip it and sort it and if we do that with the requisite dedication, energy and commitment we can resolve it."

Israeli troops battled Hamas fighters in major cities of overcrowded Gaza on Tuesday as Israel spurned appeals to halt a war on the Islamists that has killed at least 580 Palestinians.