GAZA/CAIRO: A 72-hour Gaza cease-fire held Wednesday and Israel said it was ready to extend the deal, as Egyptian mediators pursued talks with Israelis and Palestinians on an enduring end to a war that has devastated the Islamist Hamas-dominated enclave.
Egypt’s intelligence chief met a Palestinian delegation in Cairo, the state news agency MENA said, a day after he conferred with Israeli representatives. The Palestinian team, led by an official from President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party, includes envoys from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.
“The indirect talks between the Palestinians and Israelis are moving forward,” one Egyptian official said, making clear that the opposing sides were not meeting face to face.
Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukri told reporters that his country sought “solutions to protect the Palestinian people and their interests.”
An Israeli official said Israel “has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms” beyond a Friday deadline for the three-day deal that took effect on Tuesday.
But a senior Cairo-based Hamas official said late Wednesday there was no agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians over the extension of the cease-fire.
“There is no agreement on the extension of the truce,” Moussa Abu Marzouk wrote on his Twitter feed.
Despite being a member of Hamas' political leadership, he is not part of the Islamist movement’s inner circle but dealt directly with Egypt during talks it led to broker the cease-fire.
A senior official with Hamas’ armed wing threatened earlier to quit the talks if there was no progress toward 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 on condition of anonymity.
Israel’s armed forces chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, said in televised remarks that should Hamas disrupt the calm, “we will not hesitate to continue to use our force wherever necessary and with whatever force necessary to ensure the security of Israeli citizens near and far.”
Israel withdrew ground forces from tiny, densely populated Gaza on Tuesday morning and started a 72-hour, Egyptian-brokered cease-fire with Hamas as a first step toward a long-term deal.
In Gaza, where some half-million people have been displaced by a month of bloodshed, some residents left U.N. shelters to trek back to neighborhoods where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling and the smell of decomposing bodies fouls the air.
Palestinians want an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on impoverished Gaza and the release of prisoners, including those Israel arrested in a June crackdown in the occupied West Bank after three Jewish seminary students were kidnapped and killed. Israel has resisted those demands.
“For Israel the most important issue is the issue of demilitarization. We must prevent Hamas from rearming. We must demilitarize the Gaza Strip,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Frank Lowenstein, the U.S. special envoy to the talks, has arrived in Cairo as well, a State Department spokesman said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview on the BBC’s HARDtalk program, also spoke of a need for Hamas to decommission its rocket arsenal. “What we want to do is support the Palestinians and their desire to improve their lives and to be able to open crossings and get food in and reconstruct and have greater freedom,” Kerry said.
“But that has to come with a greater responsibility toward Israel, which means giving up rockets, moving into a different plane.”
But he said all this would “finally come together” as part of wider Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
Kerry has spearheaded peace efforts, but they collapsed in April over Israeli opposition to a unity deal between Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestine Liberation Organization and over Israel’s reneging on a pledge to free Palestinian prisoners.
Hamas, a powerful rival to the Palestinian Authority and in control of Gaza since 2007, has ruled out giving up its weapons.
An Israeli official who declined to be identified said Israel wanted humanitarian aid to flow to the Palestinian enclave’s 1.8 million inhabitants as soon as possible.
But, the official said, the import of cement – vital for reconstruction – would depend on achieving guarantees that it would not be used by militants to construct more infiltration tunnels leading into Israel and other fortifications. Gaza officials say the war has killed 1,874 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed.
In Jerusalem, Netanyahu launched a vigorous defense of the conflict. “I think it was justified. I think it was proportionate and that doesn’t in any way take away the deep regret we have for the loss of a single civilian casualty,” the prime minister said.
Israel had faced growing international criticism, including from the U.S., over the number of Palestinian civilian casualties.
Netanyahu showed reporters aerial images of homes and of a U.N.-run school, from which he said Hamas fired mortars and rockets. He accused the armed faction of deliberately increasing the death toll by using human shields, and condemned it “for its callous abuse of civilians.”
“Every civilian casualty is a tragedy, a tragedy of Hamas’ own making,” he added.