As truce holds, Israelis set to negotiate long-term solution

Preventing Hamas from rearming, with regional support, is government’s top priority; Jerusalem willing to ease Gaza blockade

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli soldiers walk near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip as they return from the Hamas-controlled Palestinian coastal enclave on Tuesday, August 5, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/DAVID BUIMOVITCH)
Israeli soldiers walk near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip as they return from the Hamas-controlled Palestinian coastal enclave on Tuesday, August 5, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/DAVID BUIMOVITCH)

As the 72-hour truce between Israel and Hamas appeared to hold on Tuesday, Israeli officials were set to head to Cairo for negotiations seeking to consolidate the ceasefire. Jerusalem is willing to somewhat ease its blockade on Gaza but will demand a mechanism to demilitarize the Strip, officials said.

“Israel will bring to these discussions our top priority, which is preventing Hamas from rearming,” a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Monday morning, a few hours after the 8:00 a.m. ceasefire went into effect. “Their military machine has been largely dismantled, their network of tunnels destroyed and their arsenal of rockets greatly depleted.”

Israel’s challenge now is to figure out how to demilitarize the Gaza Strip and prevent Hamas from rearming, the senior official said. “We believe that both regional and international cooperation can be effective in preventing Hamas from rearming.”

The ceasefire ended 28 days of fighting in Gaza that has left over 1,800 Gazans dead, according to health officials in the Hamas-run Strip. Israel said Tuesday that some 900 of those killed in Gaza were combatants. Mere minutes before the truce went into effect, Hamas fired 17 rockets at Israel, six of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system.

Jerusalem’s precise demands for the future are unclear, but it appears that the Israeli delegation in Cairo will highlight the “rehabilitation in exchange for demilitarization” formula. “Obviously, regional actors have a major role,” the senior official said, hinting that either Egypt or the Palestinian Authority, or both, should be put in charge of Gaza border crossings to make sure that no arms are smuggled into the Strip.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to enlist the international community’s backing for the goal of “linking the rehabilitation and development of Gaza to its demilitarization.”

American and European support for the need to demilitarize the coastal enclave’s terrorist organizations has already been obtained, constituting “an important achievement” for Israel, he declared. Netanyahu also said the “unique link” forged with certain Arab states in the region was a “very important asset for the State of Israel. With the cessation of the fighting and the conclusion of the campaign, this will open new possibilities for us.”

Netanyahu is ready to ease some restrictions on the Gaza Strip in return for sustained quiet, the senior official said Monday, refusing to provide more details. “These restrictions [on border crossings and imports of goods] are a function of the hostility and the violence. If the hostility and the violence were to cease it would give Israel room to move on the restrictions that are primarily there for security reasons.”

Tuesday’s agreement is based on the original Egyptian ceasefire proposal, which was published in mid-July. It states that, among other things, “crossings shall be opened and the passage of persons and goods through border crossings shall be facilitated once the security situation becomes stable on the ground.”

‘If ceasefire is broken, we’ll act accordingly’

On Monday night, a diplomatic official said Israel would respond if the truce were broken, as past ceasefires have been. “We are ready for the possibility that the ceasefire will be broken. In that case, we will act accordingly.”

Sixty-four Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting, 11 of them by Hamas gunmen emerging from the tunnels dug under the Gaza-Israel border, as well as three civilians.

Israel had accepted the Egyptian ceasefire proposal without preconditions three weeks ago, but Hamas rejected it, instead opting to sue for a more favorable deal with Qatar and Turkey as mediators.

A 72-hour truce announced by the United Nations and the United States late last week ended shortly after it began on Friday morning, after Hamas gunmen attacked Israeli soldiers working to decommission a tunnel, killing three. Hamas claimed that the truce had not yet begun at the time of the attack.

Israel began pulling troops out of Gaza late Saturday night, as its mission to destroy the network of tunnels used to infiltrate Israel wound down. Netanyahu had said he would not agree to a ceasefire until all tunnels were destroyed.

Israel launched the operation on July 8 to stymie rocket fire and destroy the tunnels. Over 3,200 rockets have been shot at Israel in recent weeks, and Israeli forces have carried out over 4,000 strikes on targets in Gaza during the operation, leading to widespread international condemnation. Netanyahu repeated Monday that Israel had tried not to harm civilians, and that the international community should condemn Hamas for using Gazans as human shields.

Joshua Davidovich and AFP contributed to this report.

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