Hamas negotiators met with the Islamic group’s political leadership in Qatar Friday to discuss a proposal for a long-term truce deal with Israel, amid conflicting reports over whether it would accept the proposal, and no comment on the terms from Israel.
AP quoted an unnamed Hamas official saying the radical Islamist organization was inclined to accept the Egyptian-mediated offer. It said the group had all but accepted the offer and was currently finalizing the wording. This, even though the official acknowledged that the proposed terms gave Israel “the upper hand.”
But Israel’s Channel 2, quoting Hamas sources Friday night, said the Egyptian offer “doesn’t give Hamas a thing,” and that while most other Palestinian factions were inclined to accept it, Hamas — under the Qatar-based political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal — was not.
The Egyptian proposal speaks of lifting the Israeli and Egyptian security blockade on Gaza, imposed after the Islamist terror group seized control of Gaza seven years ago to prevent Hamas importing more weaponry. But any such easing of restrictions would apparently be overseen by Israeli and Egyptian forces on their sides of Gaza’s borders, and by the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas on the Gaza side. The PA — which Hamas ousted violently from Gaza in 2007 — would also play a dominant role in the reconstruction of post-conflict Gaza.
The Egyptian formula also pushes off negotiations on the opening of a Gaza seaport and airport — key Hamas demands in recent weeks.
“The proposed agreement states in many places that lifting the blockade will come through measures and mechanisms agreed upon between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and this means Israel will always have the upper hand, and might return the situation on the crossings back to the way it used to be before the war,” the Hamas official acknowledged.
Still, he said the emerging deal would end hostilities and answer some immediate Hamas needs, including providing materials for reconstruction.
The long-term ceasefire proposal includes 11 clauses that Egypt says must be agreed upon by Israel and Hamas in order to end hostilities, according to a leaked document published by Egyptian newspaper al-Shorouk. The Israeli security cabinet met Friday to discuss ceasefire prospects but ministers left the session without comment, and Israel has neither confirmed the terms of the Egyptian proposal nor stated whether it is prepared to work within its framework.
Israel and Hamas are currently observing a five-day temporary truce, and the indirect talks in Cairo are set to continue on Sunday.
The first two clauses of the Egyptian proposal call for Israel as well as all Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip to mutually halt all cross border attacks — by land, air or sea. Construction of tunnels into Israel must be stopped at once, the Egyptian document also demands. Israel has repeatedly accepted previous Egyptian proposals for an unconditional ceasefire; Hamas has repeatedly rejected them.
The proposal also provides for the opening of border crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip for the passage of people and goods in order to rehabilitate the devastated Gaza Strip. The transfer of goods between Gaza and the West Bank will be permitted, according to principles to be determined between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
A fourth clause calls for Israeli authorities to coordinate with PA officials on all issues of funds related to Gaza and its reconstruction, while a fifth would see the elimination of buffer zones along the security fence in the northern and eastern Gaza Strip and the deployment of PA forces in those areas beginning January 1, 2015. Such a step would be conducted in several steps: At first the buffer zone will be reduced to 300 meters from the border, then 100 meters and finally the removal of the buffer zone altogether with the deployment of PA troops.
The Egyptians further call for the fishing zone off the Gaza coast to immediately be extended to 6 miles. Under the proposal, the zone will be gradually extended to 12 miles, in coordination between Israel and the PA.
Israel will also under the agreement assist the PA in rebuilding infrastructure destroyed in Gaza, and help in providing basic necessities for those Gaza residents who were forced to flee their homes due to the fighting. Israel will provide medical aid to the wounded as well, and will expedite the transfer of humanitarian aid and food through the crossings.
The Palestinian Authority in coordination with Israel and international aid groups, the proposal continues, will provide the basic products needed to rebuild Gaza, according to a predetermined schedule which will allow those driven from their homes to return as soon as possible.
The proposal further states that upon the stabilization of the ceasefire and the return to normal life in Gaza, Israel and the Palestinians will conclude their indirect negotiations in Cairo within a month after signing the deal. An exchange of prisoners and bodies will also be discussed at that time.
The possibility of constructing an airport and sea port in Gaza, according to the proposal, will be considered under the terms of the Oslo accords and other previous agreements.
Earlier Friday, Israeli cabinet ministers discussed the ongoing ceasefire talks in Cairo between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, though no final decisions were made.
In his remarks to the cabinet, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett urged the government to abandon the talks in Cairo, asserting that the negotiations will only serve to empower Hamas. Bennett said Israel should not deal with a terrorist group, but should instead take unilateral steps, including the opening of Israel’s borders with Gaza and the expansion of the offshore fishing zone.
The ceasefire talks to end Operation Protective Edge in Cairo remained on hold Friday, but some representatives of Palestinian terror groups in Gaza intimated that the fighting might be over. Later, a Hamas official said his group had all but accepted the Egyptian offer and was currently finalizing the wording.
Deputy head of Islamic Jihad Ziad Nakhaleh told the al-Hayat newspaper Friday that the hostilities between Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip and Israel were done. Khaled al-Batsh, another senior member of the terror group, had said Thursday that even if a deal isn’t reached that addresses the demands of the Palestinians, the groups in Gaza would weigh a long-term ceasefire to protect the civilian population.
A Hamas source told Israel Radio Friday that he believed the fighting wouldn’t start again, even if a deal wasn’t reached by Monday. Another unnamed Hamas official who spoke to Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin said the Islamist group wanted a long-term ceasefire with Israel, and would even accept international oversight to ensure that the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip took place above ground instead of below.
Hamas is prepared to end this war with a long-term ceasefire & to turn the authority in Gaza over the national reconciliation government
— Gershon Baskin (@gershonbaskin) August 15, 2014
Talks are expected to restart on Sunday. Israeli negotiators are expected to return to Cairo Saturday night, and the five-day truce agreed upon Wednesday is set to expire Monday night.
“The war is now behind us, and the chances for an agreement on a lasting ceasefire are encouraging,” Nakhaleh told The Associated Press. “Though we didn’t get all that we wanted, there was progress here and there.”
Israel says the Gaza closure is necessary to prevent arms smuggling, and officials are reluctant to make any concessions that would allow Hamas to declare victory.
Israel, meanwhile, is demanding that Hamas be disarmed, or at the very least, be prevented from re-arming, a term that is a virtual non-starter for the Islamist terror group.
Hamas has recovered from previous rounds of violence with Israel, including a major three-week air and ground operation in January 2009 and another week-long air offensive in 2012. It still has an arsenal of several thousand rockets, some with long ranges and relatively heavy payloads.
On Wednesday, as the head of the Palestinian delegation Azzam al-Ahmad announced the ceasefire had been extended for an additional five days, he also noted that there had been “significant progress.” But, highlighting the devil-in-the-details nature of the negotiations, he also said disagreements remained over wording regarding security arrangements, reconstruction efforts for the Gaza Strip and the permissible fishing area.
“There is a real opportunity to reach an agreement, but (Israel) must stop the maneuvers and playing with words,” said senior Hamas negotiator Khalil al-Haya.
“We are not interested in more destruction for our people. We are not interested in more bloodshed,” he said.
Al-Haya told reporters in Cairo that Hamas would seek international guarantees to enforce any agreements reached with Israel. He said that together with the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank and with which Hamas formed a unity government earlier this year, the Islamist group would expect to play an important role in rebuilding Gaza.
Almost 2,000 people have been killed in Gaza in the past month’s fighting, according to officials in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Israel says 750-1,000 of the dead are combatants, while Gaza has not broken down the deaths.
Israel also blames Hamas for all civilian fatalities, since Hamas set up its rocket launchers, tunnel openings and other elements of its war machine in Gaza neighborhoods and uses Gazans as “human shields.”
Israel lost 64 soldiers and three civilians in the fighting, which is on hold as the sides attempt to negotiate a ceasefire in Cairo.
Eleven of the Israeli soldiers were killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from cross-border tunnels dug under the Israeli border. Hamas fired over 3,000 rockets at Israel, including some 600 from areas close to schools, mosques and other civilian facilities, the Israeli army says.