Mediators worked against the clock on Thursday to extend a Gaza truce between Israel and the Palestinians as the three-day ceasefire went into its final 24 hours.
With the ceasefire due to end at 8:00 am on Friday, Egypt’s intelligence chief Mohammed Farid Tohamy was holding a new round of talks with the parties on Thursday afternoon, with the focus on extending the deadline.
But the Israeli delegation was headed back home on Thursday afternoon, an official told AFP. It was not clear whether they would return to Cairo later in the day.
Israel has said it would be prepared to prolong the ceasefire “unconditionally,” but Hamas said agreement had still not been reached to bring on an enduring end to a war that devastated the besieged enclave, as Palestinians want an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza to be lifted and prisoners held by Israel to be freed.
After a month of bitter fighting, the two sides are not meeting face to face.
“Today will be a crucial day,” a member of the Palestinian delegation told AFP.
If a truce extension was proposed “we will think about it .. and that depends on how negotiations proceed today.”
Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon sounded a cautious note, saying it was not clear where the talks would lead.
“I’m not sure what the outcome will be of the current discussions in Egypt,” he said.
Britain, France and Germany have put forward an initiative that could bring EU representatives to the Gaza border, a diplomatic source said.
Gaza officials say the war has killed 1,886 Palestinians. Figures released by UNICEF, the UN children’s fund, indicate that 73 percent of the victims – or 1,354 people – were civilians. Of that number, at least 429 were children – around 30 percent of the civilian casualties.
Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians, including one Thai citizen, have been killed since fighting began on July 8.
Efforts to turn the ceasefire into a lasting truce could prove difficult, with the sides far apart on their central demands, and each rejecting the other’s legitimacy.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri told reporters his country was working hard for a deal and sought “solutions to protect the Palestinian people and their interests.”
An Israeli official said late on Wednesday that Israel “has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms” beyond Friday morning’s deadline for the three-day deal that took effect on Tuesday and has so far held.
But a senior Hamas political leader based in Cairo, Moussa Abu Marzouk, said on Wednesday night that “there is no agreement” to prolong the ceasefire.
“Extending the 72-hour calm for another period was not discussed (with Hamas in Cairo today),” said Sami Abu Zuhri, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza.
Earlier a senior official with the Islamist movement’s armed wing threatened to quit the talks unless there is progress towards achieving its demands to lift a Gaza blockade and free prisoners held by Israel.
“Unless the conditions of the resistance are met, the negotiating team will withdraw from Cairo and then it will be up to the resistance in the field,” a senior commander of the armed wing told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israel has resisted those demands.
Israel’s armed forces chief, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, said that should Hamas disrupt the ceasefire, Israel would use “whatever force necessary to ensure the security of Israeli citizens.”
Israel withdrew ground forces from Gaza on Tuesday shortly before the 72-hour truce started at 8 am.
In Gaza, where some half-million people have been displaced by a month of bloodshed, some residents left UN shelters to return to neighborhoods devastated by Israeli shelling and the smell of decomposing bodies fouls the air.
In some areas, there are scenes of utter devastation, with certain districts reduced to an endless sea of rubble and shattered hulks of buildings, an AFP correspondent said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that Gaza would be rebuilt – but hopefully for the last time, as international patience showed signs of wearing thin.
“The senseless cycle of suffering in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in Israel, must end,” he said.
“Do we have to continue like this – build, destroy, and build and destroy?
“We will build again but this must be the last time – to rebuild. This must stop now.”
President Barack Obama, backing efforts to broker a durable ceasefire, called for a longer-term solution that provides for Israeli security while offering Gaza residents hope they will not remain “permanently closed off from the world.”
While condemning Hamas for launching rockets against Israel from population centers, Obama urged an eventual formula to ease hardships of ordinary Palestinians.
“Long term, there has to be a recognition that Gaza cannot sustain itself permanently closed off from the world and incapable of providing some opportunity – jobs, economic growth – for the population that lives there,” Obama said in Washington.
Obama said there was a need to begin the rebuilding process in Gaza, though he stopped well short of calling for an end to the crippling blockade there, and did not directly address Israel’s responsibility in the conflict.
London, Paris and Berlin tabled an initiative offering an outline for rebuilding Gaza while ensuring Israel’s security concerns were properly addressed, a diplomatic source said.
The proposal aims to strengthen the hand of the Palestinian Authority and its president Mahmoud Abbas while clamping down on Gaza-based militant groups.
It proposes Abbas’ security forces take control of border security in Gaza in conjunction with EU representatives and outlines a mechanism for preventing the rearming of militant groups or the construction of new tunnels.
It also envisages opening the Rafah border crossing with Egypt then eventually opening other crossings to Israel. It also refers to the opening of a commercial port in Gaza, the source said.
(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)