WATCH: The 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza is holding so far. The Egyptian-brokered truce, now into its second day, has remained intact, unlike several others before.
- Israel’s PM blames Hamas for heavy civilian death toll in Gaza
- Temporary cease-fire lasts through second day
- Egyptian mediators shuttling between Israeli, Palestinian delegations in Cairo for talks
- Gaza residents return to survey damage to their homes
- 1,900 Palestinians reportedly dead; UN and Gaza human rights groups say over 75 per cent civilians, but Israeli military spokesperson suggests 900 Palestinian militants killed
- 67 Israelis reportedly dead, all but 3 were soldiers
CAIRO, Egypt – Indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over extending a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and ending a blockade of the battered territory got underway in Cairo on Wednesday, with both sides taking hard-line positions and much jockeying expected ahead.
Israel wants the Islamic militant Hamas to disarm, or at least ensure it cannot re-arm, before considering the group’s demand that the territory’s borders be opened. Israel and Egypt imposed a closure after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, although Egypt allows individuals to cross intermittently.
“The two sides have reviewed what they consider as issues of concern,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said at a news conference, describing the matter as “complicated and not easy.”
Hazem Abu Shanab, a member of Fatah, one of the main factions involved in the talks, said disarmament would require Israel to pull out from occupied Palestinian territory.
“As long as there is occupation, there will be resistance and there will be weapons,” he said.
“The armament is linked to the occupation.”
Egyptian mediators have been shuttling between the delegations. An Egyptian airport official said the Israelis were back in Cairo Wednesday evening after flying out earlier in the day. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
Israeli leader blames Hamas for heavy civilan death toll
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Israel’s intense bombardment of Gaza, saying that despite the high civilian death toll it was a “justified” and “proportionate” response to Hamas attacks.
Speaking to international journalists, Netanyahu presented video footage he said showed militants firing rockets from areas near schools and Hamas deploying civilians as human shields.
“Our enemy is Hamas, our enemies are the other terrorist organizations trying to kill our people and we have taken extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties,” he said.
WATCH: Netanyahu blames high civilian death toll on Hamas
Conflicting death toll
The cease-fire is the longest lull in a war that has killed nearly 1,900 Palestinians. Israel has lost 67 people, including three civilians.
The UN and Gaza human rights groups monitoring the death toll have said more than 75 per cent of those killed in Gaza were civilians.
But an Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said Tuesday that about 900 Palestinian militants had been killed by Israeli forces during the war.
Another military official had earlier told the AP that at least 300 militants were killed. Asked about the sharp jump in figures over just two days, Lerner said the figure of 900 militants killed was an approximation, based on reporting from individual Israeli units.
Hopes for extension of cease-fire
The Palestinian delegation in Cairo is composed of negotiators from all major factions, including Hamas, and is meeting with Egypt’s intelligence chief for briefings on Israel’s demands.
“The most important thing to us is removing the blockade and starting to reconstruct Gaza,” said Bassam Salhi, a Palestinian delegate. “There can be no deal without that.”
Shukri said he hoped the cease-fire, set to expire at 8 a.m. Friday (0500 GMT), would be extended, and an Egyptian security official said Cairo was pressing Israel for an extension.
There has been no official Israeli response, though an official at Netanyahu’s office said Israel has “no problem” with “unconditional extensions of the cease-fire.” He, like the Egyptian security official, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Izzat al-Rishq, a senior Hamas member, told the Palestinian news agency that the delegation has yet to receive an answer to their demands and would condition any acceptance of an extended cease-fire on how the talks progress. “Our finger is on the trigger,” he said.
WATCH: Israeli troops continued to pull out of Gaza on Wednesday as a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that ended a month of fighting was holding for a second day
Possible solution emerges
While negotiations are still in the early stages, the outlines of a possible solution have emerged, including an internationally funded reconstruction of Gaza overseen by a Palestinian unity government led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Western-backed Abbas lost control of Gaza in the Hamas takeover of 2007.
In a step toward reconstruction, Norway is organizing a donor conference, tentatively set for the beginning of September.
Regarding an easing of the blockade, a statement by the Egyptian intelligence agency indicated Egypt would not agree to major changes at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, and the onus of lifting the border closure would fall on Israel.
“Israel is the one that sealed all the crossings from the Israeli side and it doesn’t allow commodities and goods or individuals to cross, aiming at besieging the strip and throw the whole responsibility on Egypt,” the statement said.
Cairo also refuses to open its border fully as long as Hamas, not the Palestinian authority led by Abbas, controls the Gaza side of the terminal.
The statement took aim at Hamas, saying it was not permitting its own wounded population to cross into Egypt. Hamas “continues to put obstacles in front of the families, allowing only its foreign members to cross while barring its Palestinian members under the pretext that Egypt is barring them,” it said.
Rafah is closed to commercial traffic and only individuals are permitted to cross, but Egypt has sharply restricted travel of Gaza residents over the past year and waiting lists have grown.
Shukri, the Egyptian foreign minister, said the talks were giving priority to the Israeli-controlled crossings and how to operate them to “meet the demands of the Palestinian people.”
Returning to damaged homes in Gaza
In Gaza, people took advantage on Wednesday of the calm to return to their devastated homes and inspect the damage.
People made their way over buckled roads, through dangling power lines and overturned trees to inspect their neighbourhoods. Along the way, rows of flattened buildings alternated with moderately damaged structures – and the rare unscathed building.
Utility crews were working frantically to repair downed electricity and telephone lines. Gaza’s only power plant was shut down after it was badly damaged by an Israeli attack and repairs are expected to take months, leaving the densely populated strip with only two to three hours of electricity a day, via Egypt and Israel.
How the most recent conflict started
The current round of confrontations began with the June 12 abduction-killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, which Israel blamed on Hamas before launching a round-up of hundreds of its activists, a move followed by barrages of Gaza rocket fire on Israel.
Israel launched airstrikes on July 8 it said were aimed at stopping the rocket fire before expanding the operation on July 17 by sending in ground forces to destroy a network of tunnels used to stage attacks.
On Wednesday, Israel’s Justice Ministry said it had arrested Hussam al-Qawasmi, the suspected mastermind behind the killing of the Israeli teens, in July. He allegedly led a three-man cell, all of whom were affiliated with Hamas. The militant group has not claimed any connection to the teens’ abduction and killings.
© The Canadian Press, 2014