Progress is being made in the indirect talks between Israel and Hamas in Cairo “but the gaps are still wide,” the head of the Palestinian delegation, Azzam al-Ahmad, said Tuesday. “There’s a possibility that we’ll reach an overall full agreement, but we still have a long way to go.”
Al-Ahmad told The Times of Israel the Palestinians are still demanding a seaport and airport in Gaza. “These are not new demands. They date back to the days when the Palestinian Authority was set up,” he said. “Israel needs to understand that the period of Hamas rule in Gaza is over and to act in full cooperation with the PA and the government of [PA Prime Minister] Rami Hamdallah, which will be the sovereign authority in the territories, including Gaza.”
Al-Ahmad, who was central to negotiating the PA unity deal with Hamas this spring, did not clarify how the PA would reassert its rule in Gaza seven years after Hamas violently ousted it, nor did he specify whether or how Hamas would be disarmed. A PA “unity” government, headed by Hamdallah and backed by Fatah and Hamas, was established in early June; Israel vowed to boycott it, because it rested on Hamas support.
Another senior Palestinian official, also a member of the delegation, said the Palestinian team may stay in Cairo until an agreement is reached. “It’s not clear what will happen in the remaining hours” of the 72-hour truce, which is due to expire on midnight on Wednesday, he said. “Consideration is being given to extending the truce for an additional 72 hours. The discussions are extremely serious, and it’s clear that all sides — the PA, Israel and Egypt — are trying to make progress.”
Still, this official, who insisted on anonymity, said it was not entirely clear that Hamas had taken a firm decision to put an end to the conflict. “I’m still not sure that there’s a Hamas decision to end this war,” he said. “There’s a major disagreement between the Hamas leadership in Qatar, headed by Khaled Mashaal, and the leadership in Gaza. Doha [Qatar] is pushing Mashaal all the time not to agree to the Egyptian formula.”
The official said that there has been talk in the negotiations about an easing of the blockade on Gaza, but not a lifting of the blockade. “Your side,” he said, referring to Israel, “is focused on security while we’re talking about the reconstruction of the Strip and the lifting of the blockade.” Israel fears that any easing of access to Gaza will be exploited by Hamas in order to rearm.
“There is intense and serious discussion about enabling more goods to enter Gaza via the Kerem Shalom Crossing,” he also said, discussing the specifics of the talks. “The Israeli side has also proposed a six-mile limit for fishing off the Gaza coast and nothing beyond that for now. Not nine miles and not twelve,” which the Palestinians have been demanding.
“There’s also been wide-ranging discussion about bringing in building materials such as iron and concrete” — which Israel fears could be diverted by Hamas to build new bunkers and tunnels. “There has also been discussion about the perimeter — the narrow strip around Gaza,” under which Hamas built an attack tunnel network extending into Israel.
With respect to Palestinian demands for a seaport and airport, the official said, “Israel is stressing that this will be possible only after Gaza is demilitarized, and therefore not at this stage.”
As regards to reopening the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, here too there is no talk of an immediate move. “All Palestinian factions support the deployment of PA forces at Rafah, but it’s clear that this deployment will take place at a later stage,” he said.
The official said Israel had offered to transfer 18 bodies of Hamas gunmen and to free 25 Hamas operatives arrested in the course of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in return for the bodies of soldiers Shaul Oron and Hadar Goldin. But Hamas refuses to discuss this at this stage, he said.
“There’s no great optimism at present,” the official said. “But there are numerous efforts and a desire to reach a long-term ceasefire. We are trying to work out what will happen if we haven’t reached a permanent agreement by Wednesday night, how to prevent another deterioration.”