US and Israel agree Gaza deal

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Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister and her US counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, have signed an agreement aimed at preventing arms smuggling into Gaza for the Palestinian group Hamas.

Livni, who travelled to Washington DC, the US capital, on Friday for the signing, said both sides had agreed on a "series of actions" in the memorandum of understanding to halt weapons smuggling.

Rice said at the signing ceremony that the move, coupled with other current international diplomatic efforts, would "contribute to a durable ceasefire".

Livni said that the memorandum was "a vital component for the cessation of hostilities" and that Israel had shown restraint for years under Hamas
rocket attacks.

However, she said Hamas had held "Gaza hostage" and had to pay "a high price for terror".

More than 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis have died since the Israeli offensive began on December 27.

Ceasefire efforts

Rice said Israel was planning to pursue similar such bilateral agreements over arms smuggling with "our European colleagues".

She also insisted that the US was continuing to work on "as quick a timeline as we possibly can" to support current Egyptian efforts to mediate a ceasefire in Gaza.

However she also told journalists that a US timeline for the ceasefire "is not important" when asked if a ceasefire could be achieved before Barack Obama, the US president-elect, takes over power from George Bush next Tuesday.

Senior officials from the US and Israel have been in repeated contact in recent days over the Gaza crisis, including a phone conversation between Rice and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, on Thursday.

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