Talks resume in Cairo as clock winds down again on truce

Talks resume in Cairo as clock winds down again on truce

Israel says no deal yet, Palestinian delegation signals no progress, and Hamas insists no more short-term truces

Azzam al-Ahmad gives a press conference at a hotel in Cairo, August 13, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Khaled Desouki)
Azzam al-Ahmad gives a press conference at a hotel in Cairo, August 13, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Khaled Desouki)

CAIRO — Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in Cairo resumed indirect talks on Tuesday, trying to hammer out a roadmap for the war-torn Gaza Strip after Egypt announced a 24-hour extension of the ceasefire to allow more time for negotiations.

The extension of the truce fanned hopes of an emerging deal, however vague, though wide gaps remain on key issues, including Israel’s blockade of Gaza, its demands for disarmament of the Islamist terror group Hamas and Palestinian demands for a Gaza seaport and an airport.

In an apparent attempt to pressure Hamas, Egypt said early Monday it would co-host an international fundraising conference for Gaza — but only if a deal is reached first.

That appears to play into the hands of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which is seeking to regain a Gaza foothold, seven years after Hamas ousted it from power in the densely populated coastal strip.

Hamas, whose officials are part of the Palestinian delegation in the Cairo talks, has emerged weaker from the month-long Gaza war.

The militant group finds itself pressured by both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to accept a less than perfect deal with Israel, but needs to show the people of Gaza that the enormous sacrifices they endured in the fighting were not in vain.

There were few signs of any major breakthroughs, as a senior Israeli diplomat told Army Radio that “the Israeli delegation has been instructed to insist on [Israel’s] security requirements.”

Head of the Palestinian delegation to Cairo, Azzam al-Ahmad, said there has been no progress and that Israel is “stubbornly” insisting that all of its demands be met, according to Palestinian news agency Wafa.

However, several reports seemed to indicate that Israel had moved on at least one of its key demands in negotiations thus far — demilitarization of the strip.

Ynet reported that Israel and the US have already coordinated and agreed on the details of a future agreement for a long-term ceasefire with Hamas, and a gradual lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip, by which the US will help and support Israel in its efforts to prevent terrorist groups in Gaza from rearming. An Israeli official later told Channel 2 that Israel had agreed only to ease the blockade rather than lift it and was not considering Hamas demands for an airport and seaport.

Former Palestinian Authority Minister of Prisoners Ashraf al-Ajrami told Army Radio the Israeli delegation has given up on its demand to demilitarize the Gaza Strip and instead agreed to the installation of an international task force charged with preventing arms from reaching the Strip.

“It is assessed that Israel’s demand may not be realized,” he said. “The Israeli side will soon be satisfied with a Hamas that has limited access to arms, and that’s what will end up being the result of the talks in Cairo,” he concludes.

A member of the Palestinian delegation said that Israel was offering to ease the Gaza blockade by opening border crossings to some goods and people, but was insisting that it retain the right to limit the imports of material like cement, and chemical and metal products, which can be used for weapons manufacturing.

The Palestinian official also told The Associated Press that Israel wants to put off for an unspecified date any discussion on the opening of a Gaza seaport and airport and the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

The Palestinians, however, say they will only agree to postpone discussing the seaport and airport for “a month after a ceasefire agreement, with other issues like …. the prisoners,” the official said.

He also said that Israel agrees to extend the maritime territory in which Gaza fisherman can venture out from two to four kilometers (three to six miles) and eventually to 19 kilometers (12 miles), but that it was standing firm against Hamas’ demand for unsupervised exports from the strip.

Jamal Shobaky, the Palestinian ambassador in Cairo, voiced disappointment with the Israeli stance, particularly on the question of the blockade. “What the Israelis have offered so far in the talks is not removing the blockade but rather easing it,” he said.

The Gaza blockade, imposed after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007, has greatly limited the movement of Palestinians in and out of the territory of 1.8 million people, restricted the flow of goods into Gaza and blocked virtually all exports.

Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent arms smuggling.

It is unclear what the next step would be if the sides fail to reach a long-term agreement, but a Hamas political official said Tuesday that if no deal is reached, the organization is not interested in anymore short-term truces such as those that have characterized the last week.

“If they fail to formulate an agreement, the negotiations will end,” Izzat al-Rishq said, according to Ynet. “We are not interested in lengthening negotiations any more. A significant part of the delegation did not want to extend the truce, up until the last moments [before the truce expired].”

The latest round of Gaza fighting was precipitated by massive Israeli arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank in the aftermath of the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June. Their deaths were followed by the slaying of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem in what was a likely revenge attack and an upsurge in Haas rocket fire from Gaza on Israel.

On Monday, Israel’s Shin Bet security service said it had uncovered a coup plot due to information gleaned from the West Bank arrests. It described the plot as a Hamas coup attempt aimed at toppling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Since the war started with an Israeli air campaign on July 8 in response to persistent rocket fire from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza, followed by the introduction of troops on the ground nine days later to combat Hamas attacks through crossborder tunnels, many of the Strip’s structures have been destroyed and tens of thousands of people remain huddled in UN shelters.

Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said Monday the death toll from the fighting had jumped to over 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, while UN officials, who often take more time to verify figures, put the number at 1,976. Israel says 750-1,000 of the dead were 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 lost 64 soldiers and three civilians. Eleven of Israel’s 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.

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