UNITED NATIONS, Jan 4 – The UN Security Council late on Saturday failed to agree on a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip after the United States had argued a return to the situation that existed before Israel’s ground invasion was unacceptable.
After nearly four hours of closed-door consultations, members of the council emerged without reaching agreement that would have asked Israel and Hamas to end eight-day hostilities that have claimed the lives of at least 460 Palestinians.
The meeting was the Security Council’s third since the conflict erupted on December 27.
French Ambassador Jean-Maurice Ripert, who presides in the council this month, said "there was no formal agreement between member states" on a Gaza statement.
"But I have noted strong convergencies about our concern at the escalation of violence and the deterioration of the situation and strong convergencies on our call for an immediate, durable and respected ceasefire," Ripert told reporters after the meeting.
A draft statement submitted earlier for the council’s consideration by Libya on behalf of the Arab League had expressed "serious concern" about the ground invasion and called on the parties "to observe an immediate ceasefire and for its full respect".
However, the document made no mention of the ongoing Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli territory that Israel said prompted its retaliatory offensive against Gaza, and the British and US ambassadors said the draft seemed too partial.
US deputy envoy Alejandro Wolff, talking to reporters after the consultations, said Washington believed it was important that the region "not return to the status quo" that had allowed Hamas to fire rockets into Israel.
"The efforts we are making internationally are designed to establish a sustainable, durable ceasefire that’s respected by all," Wolff said. "And that means no more rocket attacks. It means no more smuggling of arms."
As Israel’s closest ally, Washington has regularly vetoed Security Council resolutions it sees as too critical of the Jewish state.
Libyan Ambassador Giadalla Ettalhi said the impasse had produced "a sad day for the Security Council" as it failed once again "to voice its outrage at the escalation of the situation in Gaza."
Earlier in Cairo, Arab League chief Amr Mussa accused the Security Council of "ignoring" Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, saying the delay in agreeing on a resolution was proof of failure to handle the conflict.
"The continuation of … the international community and the Security Council ignoring this situation is a very dangerous thing," he told reporters at a press conference in the pan-Arab organization’s Cairo headquarters.
On Friday, US President George W. Bush made clear he would not condemn an Israeli ground offensive, arguing that Israel had a right to defend itself against Hamas, which is firing rockets into Israel.
However, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an "immediate" halt to the violence and urged Israel to allow humanitarian aid into the impoverished Palestinian territory.
A statement released by Ban’s office before the Security Council meeting said the secretary general had spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and "conveyed his extreme concern and disappointment."
"He called for an immediate end to the ground operation, and asked that Israel do all possible to ensure the protection of civilians and that humanitarian assistance is able to reach those in need," the statement went on to say.
Permanent Palestinian observer at the United Nations Riyad Mansour warned that if the Israeli assault is not stopped immediately, thousands more Palestinian civilians will be killed and injured.
"This is immoral, this is illegal, this is unacceptable, and the Security Council cannot continue to sit on its hands and not force Israel to comply with its position, the position that it adopted on Sunday morning," Mansour said.
UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto of Nicaragua called the Israeli incursion "a monstrosity."
"And once again, the world is watching in dismay the dysfunctionality of the Security Council," D’Escoto argued.
In a separate development, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to fly to the Middle East on Monday, hoping to rally key players in the region behind a French plan to pressure Israel and Hamas to renew a failed ceasefire.
The French leader will visit Egypt, the West Bank, Israel, Syria and Lebanon.