AFP - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni signed a deal here Friday aimed at halting arms smuggling into Gaza as part of efforts to clinch a ceasefire.
Speaking at a hastily-arranged signing ceremony, Rice said the deal "provides a series of steps that the US and Israel will take to stem the flow of weapons and explosives into Gaza."
Rice, who blamed Hamas rocket attacks for sparking a 21-day offensive by Israel, said the memorandum of understanding aims to ensure that "Gaza can never again be used as a launchpad" for such attacks.
"There must be an end of smuggling of weapons to Gaza," Livni said. "The MOU we sign today is ... a vital component for the cessation of hostilities."
She termed it a "historic MoU."
However, it was not immediately clear when a ceasefire could be achieved.
Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal told an Arab meeting in Doha that it would not accept any ceasefire that did not provide for a full Israeli pullout and the opening of Gaza's borders, including the Rafah crossing with Egypt.
Rice told reporters that "the American timeline is not important" when asked if a ceasefire could be achieved before President George W. Bush hands the White House over to his successor Barack Obama on Tuesday.
What is more important is that a ceasefire last, she said, adding the memorandum of understanding is a key step on the path to a ceasefire as the Israeli offensive is about enters its third week.
"There's a lot of work ahead here, but I certainly hope that we can push this to conclusion or ceasefire very, very soon," Rice said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dispatched Livni to Washington Thursday on a last-minute mission to sign what his office said is "a comprehensive US-Israeli agreement aimed at treating the issue of arms smuggling."
Rice said the deal was "a bilateral memorandum of understanding with Israel, but it's my understanding that Foreign Minister Livni is going to pursue similar efforts with our European colleagues."
The US top diplomat also spoke by telephone with her counterparts in Britain, Germany and France, but was cautious when asked about when a ceasefire could be implemented in the fighting now in its 21st day.
"We're working ... on as quick a timeline as we possibly can in support of the Egyptian mediation," she said, referring to efforts being led by Egypt to broker a truce.
At least 1,145 Palestinians have been killed and another 5,160 wounded in the Israeli onslaught, according to Gaza medics. Some 600 civilians have been slain, including 355 children, they said.
Israel launched its Operation Cast Lead on December 27 to stop Hamas militants, who control the Gaza Strip, from firing rockets on southern Israeli towns.
Livni said Israel had shown restraint for years under Hamas rocket attacks, but Hamas had held "Gaza hostage" and finally to pay "a high price for terror."
Livni's trip follows intensive discussions in recent days between senior US and Israeli officials, including a phone conversation between Rice and Olmert on Thursday.
Israeli Foreign Ministry director general Aharon Abramovich arrived in Washington on Thursday to prepare the agreement on "the long-term treatment of the issue of arms smuggling into Gaza," according to a senior official.
The understanding will include intelligence sharing on arms smuggling and monitoring of smuggling routes into Gaza, he told AFP.