CAIRO: New US peace envoy George Mitchell said on Wednesday it was critically important to consolidate the Gaza ceasefire, as Israel warned it would defend itself when Israeli a soldier was killed.
It is of critical importance that the ceasefire be extended and consolidated.
We support Egypt s continuing efforts in that regard, he said after meeting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the first leg of a Middle East tour.
Mitchell, instructed by President Barack Obama to engage vigorously to achieve real progress in the region, discussed with Mubarak Egypt s efforts to bring peace to Gaza.
He thanked Egypt for its efforts to bring about a ceasefire and said the United States is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region.
The decision by President Obama to dispatch me to come to this region less than one week after his inauguration is clear and tangible evidence of this commitment, Mitchell said before leaving for his next stop, Israel.
Earlier on Wednesday, Israeli warplanes bombed tunnels under the border between Gaza and Egypt that Israel says are used to smuggle weapons, responding to an attack on Tuesday along the border that killed an Israeli soldier and wounded three others.
A Palestinian man was killed by Israeli fire shortly afterwards and a Hamas fighter and two other Palestinians were wounded in an air strike, also in southern Gaza.
Ahead of Mitchell s arrival in Egypt on Tuesday, Obama said it was time for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people.
Instead, it s time to return to the negotiating table, he said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television.
Mitchell started his mission in Egypt, a US ally that has played the central role in efforts to forge the fragile ceasefires in Gaza into a lasting truce.
Egypt has been holding separate talks with Israeli and Hamas officials, as well as with representatives of other Palestinian militant groups.
Aboul Gheit said the talks have evolved positively, and that a permanent Gaza truce could be agreed in the first week of February.
He said such a ceasefire would lead to the reopening of crossing points into Gaza, where most of the 1.5 million population depend on outside aid but have been suffering under a crippling Israeli blockade.
Hamas, which has said it is mulling an Israeli proposal for an 18-month renewable ceasefire, insists that Israel and Egypt open their crossing points into Gaza.
Israel has said it will not do so unless Hamas frees a soldier seized by militants in a cross-border raid in June 2006. Egypt has refused to permanently open its Rafah crossing in the absence of representatives of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the border.