Stirrings of a Peace Deal on Gaza?

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Eric Feferberg / Pool / Reuters

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak attend a joint news conference in Egypt

For the first time since Israel began its bloody offensive on Gaza 12 days ago, the first frail signs appeared on Wednesday that an end to fighting that has left nearly 700 Palestinians dead may be near. Although details remain hazy about the Franco-Egyptian peace proposal that's serving as the basis of a possible truce, the initiative appears to have helped inspire Wednesday's minor miracle of a three-hour cease-fire in Gaza to allow aid workers access to what is being described as a humanitarian calamity there.

The three-hour cessation of fighting today was the first of what both Israeli and Hamas officials said would be a parenthesis of calm every 24 or 48 hours. That pause is intended to create a humanitarian corridor allowing aid workers to get badly needed food, water and medical assistance to Gaza's bloodied and traumatized population. According to U.N. officials in Gaza, the area's 1 million residents have been without electricity since the Israeli assault to silence Hamas missile firings began; 75% of those inhabitants are deprived of running water, and many can't risk going out for provisions because of the intensity of the violence. (See pictures of the heartbreak in Gaza.)

Agreement by both Hamas and Israel to stage a daily cease-fire is both a measure of just how serious the humanitarian crisis has become and a small reason for hope that an enduring truce may be possible soon. The agreement coincided with a peace initiative announced on Tuesday night by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which included what could be a significant concession by the Egyptian leader.

The plan is as basic as it is alluring: the two leaders called for an immediate end to aggression by both Hamas and Israel. They also proposed reinforced policing of Egypt's border with Gaza to ensure that Hamas could not rearm itself with the same missiles whose firing provoked Israel's offensive in the first place. Those and other measures had been floated by Sarkozy and a group of European Union representatives who led peace missions in the region on Monday and Tuesday. Their proposals, however, were largely met by a disheartening dismissal from the various players in the conflict, including Mubarak.

So what's different now? Mubarak's apparent pledge to tighten controls along Egypt's border with Gaza — with the implicit goal of preventing Hamas from building new missiles to strike Israel with. That appears designed to fulfill Israel's main condition for ending its offensive: rendering Hamas incapable of firing missiles into Israel, through either military defeat or an effective arms embargo. And while Israel hasn't officially accepted the Sarkozy-Mubarak plan, its response to the proposal contrasts with its earlier vows to fight on. "Israel welcomes the initiative of the French President and the Egyptian President to bring about a sustainable quiet in the south," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev on Wednesday afternoon. "In principle, we have fundamental agreement. Our commitment is to make that framework, and make it succeed."

The primary way of making it work, of course, is obtaining a pledge from Hamas to stop firing missiles into Israel from its Gaza stronghold — something the group has repeatedly refused to do. Yet that may be in the works. Mubarak's evolution from holdout to co-author of Sarkozy's slightly simplified plan suggests that Egypt's may be the first of several positions to shift in the region. It's likely that Mubarak's reversal was made with the knowledge that similar moves are afoot toward the same end — notably securing Hamas' acceptance of an enduring truce with Syria's assistance.

"We remain hopeful that all influential states in the region — including Syria — will do their part to help end this violence and human tragedy," says a French official, referring to Sarkozy's appeal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to exert influence on Hamas when the two men met in Damascus on Tuesday. "We think Syria could greatly contribute to peace in the region in general terms but could also help end the current crisis, in particular by making Hamas see reason."

Should that happen, a Sarkozy mission that had borne all the signs of failure might yet prove pivotal to bringing an end to the current violence in Gaza. But as is often the case with such clashes in the region, a final resolution may turn out to be the fruit of a particularly chilling horror. The upbeat response to the Franco-Egyptian proposal came just hours after an Israeli mortar strike hit a U.N. school in Gaza, killing 39 Palestinians, many of them children. "I don't think you can say that one terrible event will change everything itself," the French official says. "But it may have helped impress upon people on all sides that this simply must stop."