Israel, Palestinians pursue Gaza deal as cease-fire deadline nears
Talks in Cairo resumed Wednesday as the three-day truce between Israel and Gaza militants was expected to expire at midnight local time, so far without an agreement.
Israel’s five-member negotiating team returned from the Egyptian capital overnight following the second day of marathon discussions. They headed back out Wednesday morning for the decisive stretch of talks.
According to media reports, Egyptian brokers mediating the indirect talks between the parties have drafted a proposal with steps to ease, but not immediately lift, the blockade of the Gaza Strip in return for a more lasting cease-fire.
Israel and the Palestinian factions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad have yet to comment officially on the reported outline.
Reports on the emerging agreement suggest that it would not fully satisfy either side and would not settle Hamas’ demand to discuss a seaport or Israel’s demand to demilitarize the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli positions, as related to Hamas by Egyptian mediators, “do not meet 5% of our demands,” an unnamed Hamas official told Israel Radio. Hamas would accept international monitoring of a port and consider similar supervision of construction materials entering the coastal enclave but will not “be at the mercy” of Israel and Egypt, which control the area’s border crossings, he said.
Hamas might resume fighting if pushed into a corner, according to the official, who noted, however, that neither side was eager to continue the war.
Israel has signaled that it would accept an extension of the current cease-fire to allow more time for a negotiated settlement but stressed that talks will not be held under fire.
Israel is said to have agreed to a series of steps for easing economic conditions in Gaza, including expanding fishing grounds, reducing a buffer zone encroaching on farming land, increasing the volume of trucks transporting goods through the Kerem Shalom cargo crossing and also increasing permits for entering Israel through the Erez crossing.
Reportedly, remaining sticking points include the exact mechanism for allowing money into the Gaza Strip to pay tens of thousands of employees of Hamas-run offices who have not received wages in many months. Terms for returning the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in the recent fighting and for Hamas’ demands regarding the release of prisoners also remain unresolved.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met individually with most ministers of his security Cabinet on Tuesday, in an apparent bid to secure their approval for a possible deal.
Several of his hard-line ministers object to the Egyptian outline as it has been reported, and might vote against it if brought to the security Cabinet.
Israel cannot afford a war of attrition and must conclusively defeat Hamas “even at the cost of an escalation” of the current conflict, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters Wednesday while visiting a rocket-struck region in Israel’s south. “We must take the initiative and finish this story in a short period of time,” Lieberman said, adding that it was inconceivable that “Israel can’t defeat 26,000 terrorists.”
Both sides are in a trap, said Ben Caspit, a columnist for the Maariv newspaper who wrote that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal cannot close a deal without an achievement, whereas Netanyahu cannot afford a deal that allows Meshaal to have one. “Someone has to square out this circle so that Hamas will feel it has benefited and Israel won’t feel like a sucker,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Israel continued to deal with diplomatic backlash from its military offensive, as the United Nations Human Rights Council’s commission to investigate possible Israeli violations of international and humanitarian law was set to begin its work, and calls for an arms embargo and a boycott of Israeli goods increased.
For the second time in as many days, Israeli navy vessels fired warning shots at Palestinian fishing boats entering restricted waters along the Gaza coast, underscoring both the delicate truce and the coastal enclave’s narrow fishing zone, which Israel currently restricts to a 3-mile area.
On Wednesday, four Palestinians and an Italian journalist were killed when an Israeli shell exploded while a team of bomb-disposal experts tried to dismantle it in the Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, Palestinian sources said.
Among the victims was 35-year-old Simone Camilli, a video journalist for Associated Press.
In recent days, a series of tweeted pictures from Gaza have called attention to the danger of dozens of live Israeli munitions strewn throughout the streets. Previous Israeli assaults also left considerable amounts of unexploded munitions that were eventually handled and destroyed by explosives and demining experts.
Batsheva Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Rushdi Abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.