Villepin: There are possibilities for
escaping the spiral of violence

Speaking at a meeting with his EU counterparts in Luxembourg, France’s foreign minister raised for the second time in three days the prospect of international forces being used to separate the opposing parties in the Middle East conflict.

“We should study the feasibility (of such a force), whatever the mechanism, whatever the definition. There are possibilities which would allow us to escape from the spiral of violence,” said Dominique De Villepin.

“I believe that no state would refuse to participate in such a force between the two sides, if it’s the price to pay to achieve peace.

If there are other possibilities let’s study them. But we are not resigned to the current situation.”

Palestinian acceptance

De Villepin’s proposal won an immediate endorsement from Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath who is in the small western European state to discuss ways of rescuing a crippled peace process.

Palestinians have long called for international monitors or peacekeepers to protect them from the violence of Israeli occupation, an increase in which they blame for the latest escalation. Israel is viscerally resistant to the idea.

“We support it fully and we think the deployment of interposition troops has become extremely important in restoring peace in the area. This is something we support very much,” he told reporters.

But the suggestion received a lukewarm response from EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and other foreign ministers who emphasised Israeli concerns that the activities of Palestinian resistance groups should be curbed.

“I don’t know if the situation is mature now to do that”, he said. “I think it will be better to start things moving on the security side, and then maybe afterwards we should think about that.”

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, was also cool about the idea saying “it doesn’t seem that the situation is mature or there is an immediate necessity.”

Israel immediately shot down the proposal.

“There will be no international force here. The only thing that Israel has accepted is the presence of observers for the implementation of the various stages of the road map”, Raanan Gissin, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said.

Outlawing Hamas

The meeting was also marked by disagreements on a proposal by the British Home Secretary that the largest Islamist Palestinian resistance faction, Hamas, be declared illegal by the 15-member body.

Straw pressed his colleagues to outlaw Hamas’ political wing on the grounds that it was “extensively intertwined” with the movement’s military wing which is already classified by the EU as a terrorist organization.

But the idea ran into opposition from De Villepin who said it was important to make a distinction between “mass movements” and “terrorists”.

“It is in our interest to have Palestinian interlocutors, I distrust a strategy based on cutting off dialogue,” he said.

The prickly French minister who won enemies in Washington for his frank opposition to the US-led war on Iraq, also took a swipe at Italy’s Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi, for visiting only his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon and not Palestinian leaders,  during a recent visit to the region.

He said Berlusconi “did not live up to the European position”.

The Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said the EU needs to determine whether placing Hamas on its terrorism list while seeking its agreement to a ceasefire was the correct strategy.

Over 60 people have died in a week of Palestinian resistance attacks and Israeli occupation raids.