GAZA CITY, Palestine: Egyptian mediators clinched an agreement from Israel and the Palestinians Wednesday to extend a Gaza truce by five days just minutes before it was to expire at midnight.
Three days of frantic shuttle diplomacy had appeared in jeopardy only an hour earlier when a rocket struck Israel, hitting an open area near Gaza’s northern border shortly after sirens rang out across the south.
It was the only violation of the cease-fire reported after the lull came into effect at midnight Sunday and an Israeli army spokeswoman confirmed there had been no retaliatory airstrike on Gaza.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Azzam al-Ahmed confirmed the cease-fire would last for five days, unlike two previous 72-hour lulls.
“There is an agreement on many points regarding lifting the siege,” he said of a key Palestinian demand to end an eight-year Israeli blockade of Gaza.
The negotiators needed more time to settle “some” remaining disputes, he told reporters.
The joint Palestinian delegation in Cairo will leave Thursday to consult with their leaderships, he said.
Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist de facto rulers, said its militants were not responsible for the rocket attack, which Israel said caused no damage or casualties.
“Hamas denies firing any rockets toward the occupation this evening,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.
Millions of people had been banking on Egyptian mediators to avoid a resumption of the fighting, which has killed more than 1,950 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 67 on the Israeli side, mostly soldiers, since July 8.
Earlier, Palestinian delegation leader Azzam al-Ahmed had said that the negotiations were at “a very sensitive stage and we hope to reach an agreement.”
As the night fell on three days of calm, an AFP photographer reported seeing dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers approaching the border with Gaza.
“We have already sacrificed 64 men and it is possible we may have to sacrifice more,” Israel’s chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz said at a military ceremony Wednesday evening, his remarks broadcast on Army Radio.
“It is possible that the operation is not ended and is not completed,” he said.
In Gaza City, a few cafes near the seafront were still open as Israeli drones whined overhead, still audible above the rattle of their generators.
As the clock ticked down, many had expressed increasing anxiety that the bombing would resume after a similar truce collapsed in a firestorm of violence last Friday.
“We’re all worried, it’s natural,” said Hussein Abu Haseera, sitting outside his air conditioning shop in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood. “No one likes dying, do they?”
Mediators have proposed that talks on Palestinian demands for a seaport and an airport in Gaza be delayed until a month after a permanent cease-fire takes effect, according to an Egyptian proposal contained in documents seen by AFP.
Negotiations about handing over the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers in exchange for the release of prisoners in Israeli jails would also be postponed, the documents said.
A buffer zone along Gaza’s border with Israel would be gradually reduced and guarded by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ security teams.
Hamas is understood to have demanded clear commitments over the airport and sea port and they also want Israel to end its eight-year blockade.
Israel has said it will facilitate Gaza’s reconstruction only if the enclave is fully disarmed, a demand rejected by the Palestinians.