Talks on Gaza border deal on hold
JERUSALEM — Egyptian-brokered talks between Israel and Hamas on a new border deal for Gaza were thrown into doubt Saturday after senior officials said an Israeli team would not rejoin negotiations in Cairo unless rocket fire from Gaza stops.
A day after the end of a temporary truce, cross-border attacks continued Saturday, though at a lower intensity than on most days in the past month of fighting.
Gaza militants fired 28 rockets at Israel, the army said, while Israel struck about 50 targets in Gaza that it said were linked to militants, including mosques and homes.
The indirect talks in Cairo — which began earlier in the week with Egyptians shuttling between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations — were meant to produce a sustainable cease-fire and new border arrangements for Gaza.
Israel and Egypt have severely restricted trade and movement in and out of Gaza since the Islamic militant Hamas seized the territory by force seven years ago.
However, the gaps are wide, making it unlikely the two sides can reach a comprehensive deal envisioned by the international community, including an opening of Gaza’s borders and arrangements for the war-battered territory’s reconstruction.
Israel has said it will not open Gaza’s borders unless militant groups, including Hamas, disarm. Hamas has said handing over its weapons arsenal, which is believed to include several thousand remaining rockets, is inconceivable.
Instead, one proposal circulated by the Egyptian mediators offered a minor easing of some of the restrictions, according to Palestinian negotiators who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss internal deliberations with the media. It was not clear if this was an Egyptian or an Israeli proposal.
The Palestinian negotiators said they rejected the ideas, insisting on a complete end to the blockade.
The Palestinian team includes Hamas officials and representatives of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, from whom Hamas had taken Gaza in 2007.
The delegation agrees on the broader demands, despite some disagreements over tactics, such as whether to extend a three-day truce earlier this week, participants said.
The temporary truce had launched the talks, amid expectations that it would be extended to allow for continued negotiations.
However, Hamas refused to extend unless Israel agreed in principle to a lifting of the blockade. Azzam al-Ahmad, who is close to Abbas and heads the Palestinian delegation, had urged Hamas to accept the extension.
After the truce expired Friday morning, Gaza militants — from factions other than Hamas — resumed rocket fire.
The Israeli delegation left Cairo on Friday morning, while the Palestinian team remained in the Egyptian capital.
Palestinian negotiators had expected their Israeli counterparts to return Saturday evening, after the end of the Jewish Sabbath.
However, senior Israeli officials said this was unlikely because of the rocket attacks from Gaza on Saturday.
“We are not sending the delegation and we are not negotiating as long as there is fire,” Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, told Israel TV’s Channel 10.
“We have said that and that is also the Egyptian position and since Hamas does not honor the cease-fire it cannot expect negotiations,” he said.
Steinitz and another minister, Yaakov Peri from the centrist Yesh Atid, said Israel will not accept continued rocket fire.
“If we are dragged into a war of attrition, meaning rocket fire, sometimes more sometimes less ... along with lack of progress in the political track in Cairo, we will eventually need to consider” other options, Peri said, adding that this would include “massive entry into Gaza.”
The foreign ministers of France, Britain and Germany meanwhile called on both sides to “immediately” resume the cease-fire, according to a joint statement published on the website of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
The current Gaza war escalated from the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank in June. Israel blamed the killings on Hamas and launched a massive arrest campaign, rounding up hundreds of its members in the West Bank, as Hamas and other militants unleashed rocket fire from Gaza.