Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were poised to resume indirect talks Sunday with Egyptian mediators on reaching a more permanent ceasefire before the current truce expires Monday night.
The teams were expected back in Cairo for the fresh talks, which the Palestinians said would begin on Sunday, after consulting their political leaders over the weekend.
The talks are expected to resume on the basis of an Egyptian proposal which calls for a lasting ceasefire beyond Monday midnight, and new talks on the thorniest issues, including demands for a seaport and airport in Gaza, to begin in a month’s time.
Hamas officials appeared to reject the proposal — spokesman Osama Hamdan said Saturday that Israel must either accept its demands or face “a war of attrition, and Hamas’s military wing in Gaza declared, “We are continuing our struggle.
Israel has yet to formally respond. On Sunday morning, Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, a member of the high-ranking security cabinet, said there were a number of problematic clauses, Israel Radio reported.
Negotiations about handing over the remains of two Israeli soldiers in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails would also be postponed, according to the document.
A buffer zone along Gaza’s border with Israel would be gradually reduced and guarded by Palestinian Authority security teams.
The Egyptian government persuaded both sides late Wednesday to adhere to a new five-day ceasefire, extending an earlier three-day agreement in order to allow more time to thrash out a longer-term truce.
The talks got off to a rocky start, with Palestinian rocket attacks and retaliatory Israeli air strikes, but Saturday marked a sixth day of quiet following more than a month of fighting.
Israel has not formally responded to the Egyptian proposal – an 11-point proposal that was leaked to the press Friday. Israel’s Channel 10 said, however, that Israel was not prepared to dilute its security demands as would be required under the Egyptian proposal.
Israel, under pressure from citizens who have endured more than 3,000 rocket attacks since the IDF launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8, demands a full demilitarization of the Gaza Strip.
Azzam al-Ahmad, who heads the Palestinian delegation at the Cairo talks, told AFP on Saturday he was quietly optimistic that an agreement for a longer-term truce could be reached.
“We have high hopes of reaching an agreement very soon, before the end of the truce, and perhaps even, very quickly, for a permanent ceasefire,” he said.
But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri struck a hardline note, insisting that there can be no return to peace without a lifting of Israel’s eight-year blockade of the beleaguered coastal enclave. Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized control of Gaza from Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, and maintain it in order to prevent Hamas importing more weaponry. Israel has pushed for a lifting of the blockade to be tied to the demilitarizing of Hamas, designated a terrorist group by Israel, the US and others. Hamas has rejected the notion.
Abbas, on his part, publicly broke ranks with Hamas on Saturday, declaring in Ramallah that there was no alternative but to “stick to” the Egyptian proposal.
Earlier, in Qatar, the Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, declared that “The Palestinian people will continue their struggle until they end the occupation, the colonization and the siege [on Gaza].”
Mashaal said Hamas was not withdrawing any of its demands, and insisted on the full lifting of the blockade, and the establishment of a Gaza seaport and airport.
Hamas spokesman Hamdan warned earlier that the terror group’s tunnels will be a “strategic threat” to Israel and its rockets will be more precise “next time.”
With demands seemingly irreconcilable, the Egyptian mediators and both sides will be hard tasked to hammer out a wording that each can present as some kind of achievement.
The Israelis have spoken little in public about the negotiations.
Israel refuses to deal directly with Hamas, whose charter explicitly calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, although Hamas is part of the Palestinian delegation that also includes Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Authority.
Israel’s security cabinet met on Friday, but did not release a formal response to the Egyptian proposals. An unnamed cabinet minister was quoted by Ynet late Saturday predicting the negotiations might collapse, and that it was possible that the sides would revert to “quiet in exchange for quiet” — that is, an informal ceasefire.
Another Israeli official was quoted over the weekend as saying that the chances of reaching a long-term ceasefire deal by the end of Monday, when the current truce expires, were very faint. Consequently, he said, according to the Walla news site, the government is considering a unilateral move to ease some restrictions on access to the Gaza Strip and provide its residents with funds for rebuilding.
The European Union on Friday said it was ready to expand a police mission in Rafah, on the border with Egypt, and train Palestinian Authority customs personnel and police for redeployment in Gaza.
The EU also said a durable ceasefire must be accompanied by lifting closures on Gaza and called on “all terrorist groups” in the territory to disarm. Israel welcomed that call.
“A return to the status quo prior to the latest conflict is not an option,” said the EU Council on Friday following a foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
The Israeli foreign ministry welcomed the call for disarmament — Israel’s main demand at Cairo truce talks.
“Commitment to the principle of demilitarization, to be implemented by an effective mechanism, will ensure a fundamental change of the situation,” it said.
Almost 2,000 people have been killed in Gaza in the past 40 days of fighting. Israel says 750-1,000 of the dead are Hamas and other gunmen. It 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 has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians in the fighting. Eleven of the soldiers were killed by Hamas gunmen emerging from cross-border tunnels dug under the Israeli border. Hamas has fired over 3,000 rockets at Israel, including some 600 from close to schools, mosques and other civilian facilities, the Israeli army says.
AP contributed to this report.