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Gaza summit looks to the future

By Paul Adams
BBC News, Sharm el-Sheikh

A Palestinian walks past a destroyed building in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza
Israel launched its offensive on the Gaza Strip on 27 December

With Gaza still smouldering, foreign leaders descended on the region, thinking about the future.

Gordon Brown's plane made a lazy figure of eight over the Red Sea as prime ministers and presidents vied for the right to land first at Sharm el-Sheikh.

As we banked steeply for our final approach, a container ship ploughed a solitary path north into the Gulf of Suez.

Britain and others have offered to keep an eye on this stretch of water to prevent shipments of arms being offloaded on the coast of Sinai and smuggled across the peninsula into Gaza.

Sharm, a Mecca for divers and winter sun worshippers, has seen more than its fair share of international gatherings, including the famous 1996 Summit of the Peacemakers, which followed a spate of suicide attacks in Israel and sought, in familiar language, "to enhance the peace process, to promote security and to combat terror".

Hopes voiced

Speeding to the Jolie Ville Golf Resort, scene of numerous similar events, our convoy swept past a frieze depicting participants at that event, including some, like former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan, who haven't lived to witness the latest convulsion.

Combating terror and promoting security were clearly top of the agenda, with European powers queuing up to offer technical and training assistance to stem the smuggling of arms into Gaza.

There was also plenty of talk about addressing the appalling human consequences of Israel's bloodiest assault on the Palestinians since 1982.

Britain, for example, has offered to help ferry injured Palestinian children to hospitals in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - something that will involve a brief journey across Israel, which most of the children will never have seen.

But summit participants also dared to look to the future, voicing their hopes that the damage can be repaired and some good come out of it.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak said he was willing to host an international meeting to "muster the necessary resources to rebuild Gaza".

US President-elect Barack Obama (file photo)
Hopes are pinned on Barack Obama to ultimately revive the peace process
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France went further, raising the possibility of "a great conference that would make it possible to lay the foundations of a lasting peace".

In a possible reference to the Americans - so conspicuously absent at this critical moment - Mr Sarkozy said "we shall need everyone".

Much has been made of Israel's timing, in launching its assault on Gaza in the dying days of the Bush administration, and ending it days before Barack Obama's inauguration.

With America on holiday, it has fallen to Europe to carry the baton of Middle East diplomacy, even if only for a few days.

But everyone knows that if the peace process is to experience new life and rise, like a phoenix, out of the ashes of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli military operation in Gaza, then President-elect Barack Obama is probably the only person who can make it happen.

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