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OPT: Gaza peacekeepers should be considered - UN envoy

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By Adam Entous

JERUSALEM, May 24 (Reuters) - Israel, the Palestinians and the United Nations should consider stationing international peacekeepers in the Gaza Strip, the U.N.'s newly appointed special envoy to the Middle East said on Thursday.

Israel has long resisted Palestinian calls for peacekeepers in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, saying their deployment would interfere with Israeli security measures.

But Israel has signalled flexibility since last year's Lebanon war, which ended with a boosted UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) peacekeeper force in former Hezbollah guerrillas strongholds.

"I'm not sure this (UNIFIL) is the right model for Gaza. But I think that this is one of the things that we -- the U.N. -- and Israel and the Palestinians need to be thinking about for the future," U.N. envoy Michael Williams told Reuters.

"It goes without saying it would be a hard task to pull it (a Gaza peacekeeping force) together," said Williams, who helped put together last year's force for southern Lebanon.

"But sometimes, I think, the international community realises the importance of political stability and peace in this region. Member states and prime ministers and ministers of defence and so on have to think very carefully about deploying their troops in difficult circumstances. But I have no doubt that if we came to that juncture, we could get such an international force," he said.

Israel pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, but cross-border violence has continued and Israel this month launched an air campaign to try to stop militants from firing rockets at southern Israeli towns.

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On his first visit to the region in the envoy post, Williams condemned the rocket fire from Gaza and said he feared "vicious fighting" between ruling Hamas Islamists and President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction seriously threatened their two-month-old unity government.

"I'm not sure how many shocks like this it (the unity government) can survive. But I think it's very important for the Palestinian people that it does survive," Williams said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has proposed exploring the deployment of an international force in the so-called Philadelphi Corridor between Gaza and Egypt in a bid to stop smuggling by militants.

Italy's foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, has said that his government would consider sending peacekeepers to Gaza if the Palestinian government requested help to end factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah.

Italy is a leading contributor to UNIFIL, and D'Alema said last year that if the Lebanon force proved effective, a similar force could be used in Gaza.

Senior Western diplomats said they doubted enough European countries would come forward for a peacekeeping force in Gaza, especially if Israel insisted on a sweeping mandate that required it to disarm heavily armed militants.

The diplomats said, however, that countries in the region like Jordan, Egypt and Turkey could be candidates.

Though Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has publicly praised UNIFIL, some Israeli officials complain peacekeeping has not been aggressive enough and that the mandate should be expanded and strengthened to prevent Hezbollah from bringing in more rockets and taking up their old positions.

Despite some Israeli complaints, Williams said "very senior Israeli officials and ministers say that, on their northern border, there's a stability which has not existed for the past quarter of a century. They're no longer eye-to-eye with Hezbollah."

Williams said Israeli leaders from the start saw UNIFIL as a "real test" of the United Nations that could be applied in other areas. "They (Israeli leaders) say, 'If this is going to work, ..., then it will have some read out in a wider sense in the region.'"

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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