No ceasefire agreed in Cairo with Israel, senior U.S. officials absent

World leaders on Saturday gathered in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, for a conference to discuss ways to de-escalate the latest round of Palestinian-Israeli conflict amid growing fears of a wider Middle East conflict, but with Israel and senior U.S. officials absent, there were no agreement reached on a ceasefire, two weeks into a conflict that has killed thousands and visited a humanitarian catastrophe on the blockaded Gaza enclave of 2.3 million people.

No agreement on ceasefire

Egypt, which called and hosted the meeting, succeeded in highlighting the points of agreement to be built upon, including the seriousness of the humanitarian situation and the necessity of bringing aid into Gaza, Egyptian presidential spokesman Ahmed Fahmy said in televised statement on Saturday.

However, the one-day Cairo Summit for Peace, which was attended by representatives from over 30 countries including Jordan, Qatar, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, together with United Nations (UN) and European Union officials, ended without participants agreeing on ceasefire or the level of condemnation, Fahmy added.

While Arab and Muslim states called for an immediate end to Israel’s offensive at the summit, Western countries mostly voiced more modest goals such as humanitarian relief for civilians.

Jordan’s King Abdullah denounced at the summit what he termed global silence about Israel’s attacks and urged an even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

France called for a humanitarian corridor into Gaza that it said could lead to a ceasefire. Britain and Germany both urged Israel’s military to show restraint and Italy said it was important to avoid escalation.

Western delegates demanded “a clear condemnation placing responsibility for the escalation on the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)” but Arab leaders refused, an Arab diplomat told the media agency AFP on condition of anonymity after the summit.

Instead the Egyptian side released a statement – drafted with the approval of Arab delegates – criticizing world leaders for seeking to “manage the conflict and not end it permanently.”

Absent Israel, U.S. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads the Palestinian Authority, a government exercising semi-autonomous control in the occupied West Bank, attended the summit and called for Israel to stop “its barbaric aggression” in Gaza. 

He stressed that Palestinians would not be displaced or driven off their land. “We will not leave, we will not leave, we will not leave, and we will remain in our land,” he told the summit.

However, the absence of any representative from the Israeli side, and any senior US official, dampened expectations for what the summit could achieve.

Despite not participating, Israel on Saturday criticized the parties attending the summit for failing to agree on condemning Hamas.

“It is unfortunate that even when faced with those horrific atrocities, there were some who had difficulty condemning terrorism or acknowledging the danger,” a Foreign Ministry statement said. “Israel will do what it has to do and expects the international community to recognize its justified battle.” 

The United States, Israel’s closest ally and a vital player in all past peace efforts in the region, only sent its Cairo charge d’affaires, who did not address the meeting in public.

U.S. political support for Israel has persisted since the conflict started.

It proposed late on Saturday a draft UN Security Council resolution that says Israel has a right to defend itself and vetoed a UN Security Council resolution last week that would have condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel while calling for a pause in the fighting to allow humanitarian assistance into Gaza, which was the sole vote against the resolution.

UN data showed that the U.S. has used its UN Security Council veto power 53 times against resolutions relating to Israel, out of a total 83 times in which its veto has ever been used.

‘Immediate, unrestricted humanitarian aid’

Israeli airstrikes continued to pound the Gaza Strip on Sunday while the Hamas kept firing rockets at Israel.

Since the beginning of the conflict on October 7, over 5,800 people have been killed on both sides, including over 4,400 Palestinians and more than 1,400 Israelis, according to latest data from the health ministries of both sides.

About 1.6 million people, at least 60 percent of the Gazan population, have been displaced as a result of the ongoing Israeli attacks, according to a Saturday statement by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

There have also been 59 attacks on health workers or health facilities in Gaza and the region has been cut off from electricity for over 10 days.

On Saturday, 20 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing, the only border crossing between the besieged coastal enclave and Egypt.

Humanitarian agencies, however, have said the initial aid delivery is a “drop in the ocean” and policymakers have called for the sustained delivery of essential goods to meet the needs of those living in the besieged enclave.

Speaking at the summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for “a humanitarian ceasefire now.” 

He emphasized three key things to help de-escalate the crisis: “Immediate, unrestricted and sustained humanitarian aid for besieged civilians in Gaza. Immediate unconditional release of all hostages in Gaza. And immediate and dedicated efforts to prevent the spread of the violence, which is increasing the risk of spillover.”

(With input from agencies)

(Cover: Smoke rises after an Israeli air strike on Rafah during the arrival of trucks loaded with aid from Egyptian to Palestine at the Rafah border crossing in Palestine, October 21, 2023. /CFP)

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