Palestinian Authority looks to France for support

Israel's ground offensive in Gaza has increased the pressure on French President Nicolas Sarkozy to try and secure a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas. Sarkozy will meet his Palestinian counterpart on Monday.



The Israeli military began invading the Gaza Strip on Saturday, shortly before 7:30pm. Keep track of the unfolding operations with our timeline when you click here.




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Reuters - French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have ended his widely praised stint in the European Union's presidency but his forthcoming visit to the Middle East suggests he is in no hurry to leave the limelight.


With U.S. President George W. Bush counting out the days before he formally departs on Jan. 20, Barack Obama still to take office and a lower-key Czech Republic now holding the EU reins, Sarkozy sees a leadership gap.


"No other leader has really put forward any initiatives," French Budget Minister Eric Woerth told Europe 1 radio on Sunday, a day before Sarkozy's trip.


"I think he is the only one capable of taking an initiative like this," he said.


After handling crises from Georgia to the near-meltdown of the bank system, Sarkozy ended his tenure in the EU presidency with a global profile not enjoyed by any European leader since the early days of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.


In an interview with three Lebanese newspapers, Sarkozy said Hamas bore "a heavy responsibility for the sufferings of the Palestinian people" and said its rocket attacks had to stop.


But he also condemned the Israeli ground offensive and urged Israel to let humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.


How France, which formally handed over the EU presidency at midnight on Dec. 31, plans to help broker a ceasefire remains unclear but Sarkozy appears to be counting on his personal influence with both Israel and Arab leaders to help.


"France, because it has been able to build up relations of confidence and friendship with all the parties, has a particular responsibility," he said in the interview with the Al-Nahar, As-Safir and L'Orient le Jour newspapers.


Gaza Strip


Israel's land invasion of the Gaza Strip on Saturday greatly complicates Sarkozy's already sensitive two-day visit, which starts on Monday and will take him from Cairo to Beirut, via Ramallah, Jerusalem and Damascus.


The trip will not be made any easier by having to tread carefully around a separate visit at the same time led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who will formally be speaking for the EU as a whole.


Big pro-Palestinian demonstrations in France, at least one of which ended with violent, if limited, clashes between police and protestors, have also underlined the domestic tensions that could be stoked by the crisis at home.


While French diplomats have been scrupulous in deferring publicly to the Czech EU presidency and Sarkozy made sure to speak with European partners like Germany's Angela Merkel or Spain's Jose Luis Zapatero, he believes the scale of the crisis goes beyond institutional niceties.


"The emergency is compelling us to act," one French diplomat told Reuters.


But conscious that his hyperactive style and refusal to stand by while events unfold has often been criticised as putting show over substance, he has been uncharacteristically quiet about the crisis in recent days.


"The less we talk about it, the better it is," he told a small group of French journalists last week. "It's very complicated."





Map of President Sarkozy's Middle East tour on Jan 5-6



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