Israelis, Palestinians kick off ceasefire talks in Cairo

As truce enters 2nd day, delegations brace for tough negotiations and uphill diplomatic battle amid conflicting demands

An Israeli soldier is seen near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip as he returns from the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave on Wednesday, August 5, 2014, as a 72-hour truce holds. (photo credit: Dave Buimovitch/Flash90)
An Israeli soldier is seen near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip as he returns from the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave on Wednesday, August 5, 2014, as a 72-hour truce holds. (photo credit: Dave Buimovitch/Flash90)

A fragile ceasefire in the Gaza Strip entered a second day Wednesday as Israeli and Palestinian delegations prepared for talks in Cairo to try to extend the 72-hour truce.

Delegations are now ready for what are expected to be tough talks aimed at securing a permanent ceasefire after the three-day window closes. The United States is also due to take part in the talks, though Secretary of State John Kerry is not expected to attend, according to Israeli media reports.

Officials on both sides confirmed sending small teams to Cairo.

Citing Egyptian officials, the Haaretz daily reported overnight Tuesday that Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen was part of Israel’s delegation to Cairo for ceasefire talks with Palestinians. Earlier, Israeli media reported that Yitzhak Molcho, a trusted associate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Amos Gilad, a high-ranking defense official, were heading the Israeli delegation.

Molcho, Netanyahu’s close aide, was a member of Israel’s negotiation team during recent failed peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Gilad is the director of policy and political-military affairs at the Defense Ministry. Both have been in Cairo for previous ceasefire discussions.

The delegation arrived in Cairo Tuesday evening.

It will not be holding direct negotiations with the Palestinian party — which includes members of Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad and others — but will be transferring messages back and forth through Egyptian mediators.

Both sides bring conflicting demands and face an uphill diplomatic battle.

The Palestinians insist that Israel end its eight-year blockade of Gaza and open border crossings, while Israel wants Gaza fully demilitarized after having suffered from years of rocket and mortar fire from the Strip and having more recently uncovered a network of tunnels, some of which led under the border to Israel and were used by Hamas fighters to kill 11 Israeli soldiers in several attacks.

Israel’s Army Radio reported that Cairo is pushing for a plan that would put the Palestinian Authority in charge of rehabilitating the Gaza Strip, Army Radio reports.

The unsourced report noted that Israel is likely to accept the plan, which would also put the PA, headed by Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas, in charge of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

The move would serve to somewhat sideline Hamas, which has been governing the Strip since a violent takeover from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.

The ceasefire, which came into effect Tuesday, has brought relief to both sides after a month of fighting. Israel launched its operation on July 8 to stem rocket fire from Gaza onto Israeli towns, and later expanded the campaign to a ground incursion in a bid to destroy the attack tunnel network.

After the longest period of quiet since fighting began, Palestinian authority foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said he expected “the ceasefire to expand into another 72 hours and beyond.”

“We are determining at what level and in what capacity and when,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.

Kerry, in a BBC interview, called for a sustained ceasefire but stressed that the crucial wider issues will need to be addressed.

“How are we going to make peace? How are we going to eliminate these rockets? How are we going to demilitarize and move towards a different future?” he asked.

On the first day of the truce in Gaza City, people came out in numbers, children played on the street and some shops reopened for the first time in days.

Others ventured home only to find utter devastation.

“What am I going to tell my wife and children? I don’t want them to see this! They will go crazy,” said Khayri Hasan al-Masri, a father of three who returned to his heavily damaged home in Beit Hanoun in the north after fleeing when Israel’s ground offensive began on July 17.

Relief mixed with skepticism

Israel’s security cabinet met to discuss a long-term ceasefire, but broke up without any public statement.

In southern Israel, there was relief but skepticism.

“I never trust Hamas,” said Orly Doron, a mother living in a Gaza border kibbutz that has been battered by rocket fire.

“We had three or four ceasefires during this war; we all saw they weren’t kept.”

A poll published by Haaretz Wednesday said a majority of Israelis thought “nobody” had won the conflict in Gaza.

Asked “Following the ceasefire, how would you describe the results of Operation Protective Edge?” 51 percent of those who took part said neither side had won. Another 36 percent said they thought Israel had won, and just six percent thought Hamas had emerged victorious.

It is the second time in four days the two sides had agreed to observe a 72-hour humanitarian truce. The previous attempt on August 1 — brokered by Washington and the UN — was shattered by Hamas after just 90 minutes.

The new ceasefire, announced by Egypt late on Monday, is the longest lull since fighting began.

This time Israel has withdrawn its troops, ending the ground operation aimed at destroying Hamas’s tunnels.

Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said troops would respond to any truce violations.

Israeli Brigadier General Guy Goldstein, deputy head of the unit responsible for civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories, said more than 250 trucks of supplies entered Gaza on Tuesday.

The United States and the United Nations have welcomed the truce, saying the onus was on Hamas to keep its part of the deal.

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