A Gaza ceasefire was holding on Wednesday as Egyptian mediators pursued talks with Israeli and Palestinian representatives on an enduring end to a war that has devastated the besieged Strip.
Israel withdrew ground forces from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday morning and started a three-day ceasefire with Hamas mediated by Egypt as a first step towards negotiations on a more enduring end to the month-old war.
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 Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas’s 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. “It is still too early to talk about outcomes but we are optimistic.”
Israel’s delegation to the talks arrived in Cairo later on Wednesday, sources at the airport in the Egyptian capital said.
Egypt’s 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.”
But a senior official with Hamas’s armed wing said the group may quit the Cairo talks if progress was not made toward meeting its main demands to lift a blockade on Gaza and free Palestinian prisoners.
“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 Hamas’s armed wing told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israel’s military chief, Lieutenant-General 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.”
Egyptian and Palestinian sources said they expected an initial response by Israel to the Palestinian demands, which it has so far shown no signs of accepting, later on Wednesday.
Israel withdrew ground forces from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday morning and started a 72-hour Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas as a first step towards a long-term deal.
It showed signs of expecting the truce to last by lifting official emergency restrictions on civilians living in the country’s south, permitting more public activities and urging everyone to resume their routines.
In Gaza, where some half-million people, who were refugees or descendants of refugees from a series of Israeli aggression over the decades, have been displaced by a month of bloodshed, some residents left UN shelters to trek back to neighborhoods where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling and the smell of decomposing bodies fills the air.
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.
Khayri Hasan al-Masri returned alone to Beit Hanoun, sparing his immediate family the ordeal of seeing the devastation.
“What am I going to tell my wife and children? I don’t want them to see this! They will go crazy. How can I explain all this?” he sighed, crunching over debris under foot.
Some of the worst devastation is near the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which was flattened in a massive Israeli assault that began on Friday.
Israel has been subject to increasingly harsh criticism over civilian casualties in Gaza.
A delegation of Arab foreign ministers, including those from Egypt and Jordan, will visit Gaza “soon” in a show of support for Palestinians, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said Wednesday.
“An Arab ministerial delegation will go to Gaza soon in solidarity,” he told reporters.
The ministers will also assess reconstruction needs in the battered enclave, Arabi added.
The delegation, which is expected to expand, so far includes the foreign ministers of Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, as well as Arabi himself.
A British parliamentary committee report said Wednesday excessive Israeli restrictions on Palestinian territories cannot be justified on the grounds they protect the Zionist state.
Many Israelis living on the Gaza border were unconvinced by their military’s announcement that its mission was accomplished, and said they were in favor of a continued assault on Gaza.
Israel’s government, they said, had taken too long to deal with the network of underground passages, and it may have acted prematurely in pulling the army out of Gaza on Tuesday, just before the start of a 72-hour truce.
“They knew about it for so long and did nothing. Who can promise me that all the tunnels have been destroyed? I am angry that they are not pressing on with the offensive,” said Leah Musafi, 30, who lives in Nir Am, a kibbutz next to the Gaza border.
Palestinians want an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on impoverished Gaza, which is considered illegal by many international law experts, and the release of prisoners, including those Israel arrested in a June crackdown in the occupied West Bank after three Jewish settlers were kidnapped and killed. Israel had blamed Hamas, with no proof, for the incident.
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,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Reuters television.
US 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 towards Israel, which means giving up rockets, moving into a different plane,” he said.
Kerry said, however, all this would “finally come together” as part of wider Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts that he has spearheaded but which have been frozen since April over Israel’s opposition to a unity deal between Hamas and Abbas’s Palestine Liberation Organization.
Hamas, which rules Gaza, has ruled out giving up its weapons, especially considering that Israel has in its possession sophisticated military weapons, including a nuclear arsenal.
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 1,867 Palestinians, the vast majority are civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed since fighting began by Israel on July 8.
An Israeli opinion poll, conducted after the ceasefire went into effect, said Israelis, while not regarding the Gaza war as a victory for their country’s powerful military, remained highly supportive of Netanyahu.
According to the poll in the Haaretz newspaper, 51 percent of those surveyed said neither side won, while 36 percent believe that Israel emerged victorious. Six percent said Hamas was the victor.
Of the 442 people who took part in the poll, 77 percent described Netanyahu’s performance during the war as excellent or good.
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. Hamas rejects Israel’s existence, while Israel denounces Hamas as a terrorist group and eschews any ties, as well as denies the very existence of the Palestinians.
Egypt has positioned itself as a mediator in successive Gaza conflicts but, like Israel, its current military regime views Hamas as a security threat.
Besides the loss of life, the war has cost both sides economically. Gaza faces a massive $ 6-billion price tag to rebuild devastated infrastructure. Israel has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism and other sectors and fears cuts in overall economic growth this year as well, and the war cost it a further $1 billion.
Palestinian officials said a donor conference to raise funds for Gaza’s reconstruction would be held in Oslo next month.
(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)