Israel, Palestinians pursue Gaza deal with cease-fire clock ticking


The threat of renewed war in Gaza loomed on Wednesday as the clock ticked toward the end of a three-day cease-fire with no sign of a breakthrough in indirect talks in Cairo between Israel and the Palestinians.

A Palestinian official with knowledge of the negotiations saidEgypt had presented a new proposal for a permanent truce agreement that addressed a major Palestinian demand for a lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the Gaza Strip.

Israel and Egypt harbor deep security concerns about Hamas, the dominant Islamist group in the small, Mediterranean coastal enclave, complicating any deal on easing border restrictions.

It was unclear from the official's remarks how those worries, along with Israel's demand for Gaza's demilitarization, would be dealt with. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said disarming was not an option.

Israeli negotiators returned to Egypt after overnighting in Israel with the truce in the month-old hostilities – which have killed 1,945 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and 67 on the Israeli side – due to expire at 5.00 p.m. ET.

Palestinian delegates and Egyptian intelligence officials reconvened for talks that could go down to the wire.

Azzam Ahmed, an official of the mainstream Fatah party who heads the Palestinian team in Cairo, said the negotiations were at a very sensitive stage and it hoped to reach a cease-fire agreement before the current truce runs out.

Egyptian and Palestinian sources said Israel had tentatively agreed to allow some supplies into the Gaza Strip and relax curbs on the cross-border movement of people and goods, subject to certain conditions. They did not elaborate, and in Israel, officials remained silent on the state of the talks.

A Palestinian demand for a Gaza seaport and reconstruction of an airport destroyed in previous conflicts with Israel has also been a stumbling block, with the Jewish state citing security reasons for opposing their operation.

But the Palestinian official said Egypt had proposed that a discussion of that issue be delayed for a month after the long-term cease-fire deal takes hold.

FISHING LIMITS

As part of the Egyptian blueprint, Israel would expand fishing limits it imposes on Gaza fishermen to six miles (10 km) from the usual three-mile offshore zone.

“It will increase gradually to no less than 12 miles in coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel,” the official said, referring to a likely expanded role in Gaza affairs for the government of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas of the West Bank.

In addition, the official said, the Egyptian plan calls for reducing the size of a “no-go” area for Palestinians on the Gaza side of the border from 300 meters (984 feet) to 100 meters (328 feet) so that local farmers can recover plots lost to security crackdowns.

A Palestinian official said the Palestinian delegation had agreed that reconstruction in Gaza should be carried out by a unity government of technocrats set up in June by Hamas and Abbas's more secular Fatah party.

The two sides are not meeting face-to-face in Cairo: Israel regards Hamas, which advocates its destruction, as a terrorist group. But the official said once they inform Egypt of their agreement, a cease-fire accord could be signed the same day.

Since Israel launched its military campaign on July 8 to quell cross-border rocket fire from Gaza into the Jewish state, most of the Palestinian dead have been civilians, hospital officials in the small, densely populated enclave say.

Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians. Many of the Palestinian rocket salvoes have been intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system or fallen on open ground, but have disrupted life for tens of thousands of Israelis.

The heavy losses among civilians and the destruction of thousands of homes in Gaza, where the United Nations said 425,000 of 1.8 million population have been displaced by the war, have stoked international alarm.

On Tuesday, Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas's leader in Cairo, described the negotiations as “difficult”. An Israeli official, who declined to be identified, said no progress had been made.

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, speaking on Tuesday, told Israel's armed forces to prepare for a possible resumption of fighting. A previous 72-hour cease-fire last week expired without a longer-term deal and Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes resumed, although at lower intensity.

“It could be that shooting will erupt again and we will again be firing at them,” Yaalon said.

Israel pulled ground forces out of Gaza last week after it said the army had completed its main mission of destroying more than 30 tunnels dug by militants for cross-border ambushes. It now wants guarantees Hamas will not use any reconstruction supplies sent into the enclave to rebuild the tunnels.

Mediators race against clock to extend Gaza truce


Mediators worked against the clock on Thursday to extend a truce between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, as the three-day ceasefire went into its final 24 hours.

Israel said it was ready to agree to an extension as Egyptian mediators pursued talks with Israelis and Palestinians on ending a war that has devastated the Hamas-ruled enclave. Palestinians want an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza to be lifted and prisoners held by Israel to be freed.

“Indirect talks are ongoing and we still have today to secure this,” an Egyptian official said when asked whether the truce was likely to go beyond Friday.

“Egypt’s aims are to stabilise and extend the truce with the agreement of both sides and to begin negotiations towards a permanent agreement to cease-fire and ease border restrictions.”

The Palestinian delegation was expected to meet Egyptian intelligence officials late on Thursday evening.

After a month of bitter fighting, the two sides are not meeting face to face.

Gaza officials say the war has killed 1,874 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed since fighting began on July 8, after a surge in Palestinian rocket salvoes into Israel.

An Israeli official said late on Wednesday that Israel “has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms” beyond Friday morning's expiry of the three-day deal, which took effect on Tuesday and has so far held.

A senior Israeli minister, Yaakov Peri, said on Army Radio that an extension would be “right for both sides” and added: “Let's hope that reason prevails.”

GAZA RALLY

In Gaza, Palestinian factions held a rally, with several thousand supporters urging Hamas to “bomb Tel Aviv”.

Mushir Al-Masri, a Hamas official, told the crowd that Israel should know that “our fighters are in the battlefield with their fingers on triggers”.

A senior official with Hamas's armed wing has threatened to quit the talks in Cairo unless progress is made towards meeting the group's demands. A Hamas source said it was ready to resume fighting once the truce ended if its demands were not met.

A Hamas refusal to extend the cease-fire could further alienate Egypt, whose government has been hostile to the group and which ultimately controls Gaza's main gateway to the world, the Rafah border crossing.

Israel's armed forces chief, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, said that if Hamas broke the truce, Israel would use “whatever force necessary to ensure the security of Israeli citizens”.

A senior Israeli military officer, briefing foreign reporters, said it could take “months” for Hamas and other Palestinian groups to rebuild their domestic rocket production capacity.

“They started with around 9,000 rockets (in their total arsenal) and now they have a bit less than 3,000,” the officer said. “The majority are short-range, less than 40 km (25 miles).”

Finance Minister Yair Lapid said Israel's 2014 budget could absorb the cost of the conflict without raising taxes. But the Fitch ratings agency said budget planning next year might reflect the need to reverse recent falls in defence spending.

GROUND FORCES

Israel withdrew ground forces from Gaza on Tuesday, shortly before the 72-hour truce started at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT).

It showed signs of expecting the truce to last by lifting official emergency restrictions on civilians living near Gaza in Israel's south, permitting more public activities and urging residents to resume their routines.

In Gaza, where half a million people have been displaced by a month of bloodshed, some residents left U.N. shelters to return to neighbourhoods devastated by Israeli shelling.

President Barack Obama, backing efforts to broker a durable cease-fire, called for a longer-term solution that provides Israel with security while offering Gaza residents hope they will not be permanently cut off from the world.

While condemning Hamas for launching rockets against Israel from population centres, Obama urged an eventual formula to ease the hardships of ordinary Palestinians.

Efforts to achieve a lasting truce could prove difficult, with the sides far apart on their central demands, and each rejecting the other's legitimacy. Hamas rejects Israel's existence and vows to destroy it, while Israel denounces Hamas as a terrorist group and refuses any contact.

Despite truce, rockets still falling on Israel


Rockets continued to fall on southern Israel despite a truce with Gazan terrorist groups.

The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted five rockets fired at Ashkelon shortly after the truce, which was mediated by Egypt, went into effect at 8 p.m. Sunday. Several rockets also hit southern Israel on Sunday.

An Israeli man, 50, was seriously injured by shrapnel when a rocket exploded near a factory in Sderot.  A school in Sderot also was damaged by rocket fire.

Israel struck several targets in Gaza over the weekend, according to the Israeli military, including a terror cell about to detonate a rocket. Hamas reported that at least three Palestinians were killed in retaliatory attacks over the weekend, including a child and a terrorist.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the regularly scheduled Cabinet meeting on Sunday said “the IDF is taking strong action against those who are attacking us and it will take even stronger action if need be. Our policy is to use force in order to restore security and quiet to the residents of the south.”

At least 150 rockets fired from Gaza have struck southern Israel since the cross-border attacks began last week, the Israel Defense Forces reported.