[Demonstrations in Gaza against Israel]
GAZA CITY (Ma’an): Hamas on Thursday evening said that Israel had still not replied to its ceasefire offer and threatened that there would be an “escalation” in hostilities if Israel failed to do so, just over twelve hours before a three-day ceasefire was set to expire at 8 a.m. on Friday.
The statements came after US President Barack Obama appeared to support Hamas’ demands for an end to the siege earlier in the day by saying that Gaza could not be isolated forever, while Israel refused to budge, leaving the threat of a return to hostilities Friday morning looming.
Sources privy to the Cairo ceasefire talks, however, told Ma’an that a meeting would be held around 10:30 Thursday night between the Palestinian delegation and the Egyptian intelligence minister to give Palestinians the Israeli response to their demands.
The Israeli delegation had met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon before returning to Egypt Thursday night.
Sources said that there might be an inclination to extend the ceasefire for a further 72 hours for attempts to reach a lasting ceasefire to continue.
Thousands rallied in the streets of Gaza City earlier on Thursday in support of the Palestinian delegation currently in Cairo trying to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel.
Marches called for by Hamas set off from different mosques across the Gaza Strip heading to the Palestinian Legislative Council, the equivalent of the parliament, while speakers urged the talks delegation to ensure that Gazans’ “rights” were guaranteed.
“We are here today united to show that we support the Palestinian delegation in Cairo,” Hamas member of parliament Mushir al-Masri said, adding: “We tell them to not return unless our conditions and demands have been accepted.”
“We have won the military battle and with the permission of God we’ll win the political battle,” he said during the rally.
Abu Ubaida, the spokesman of the Hamas-affiliated al-Qassam Brigades, said in a televised address Thursday night that the military wing had given the political leadership “the opportunity to negotiate to stop Israel from hurting our people,” but insisted that there would be no ceasefire unless Israel agreed to end the siege.
Hamas has insisted that Israel end its eight-year siege on the Gaza Strip, release dozens of prisoners whom Israel has re-arrested that were released in 2011 as part of the Shalit exchange, the re-opening of a seaport and airport in Gaza, and the creation of a safe passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Al-Masri pointed out that the demands of Palestinians are their “rights,” calling upon Egypt and the Arab World to stand behind them in these demands.
At the same time, al-Masri stressed that if Israel failed to respond and give Palestinians their rights, Hamas was prepared to continue fighting.
“Fighters still have their fingers on the trigger and their missiles targeted towards Israeli cities,” he said.
“If Netanyahu does not accept our demands, you will not return to your homes,” he added in a pointed statement to the residents of Israeli cities near the Gaza border that have been subjected to Palestinian rocket fire.
Hamas’ demands are consistent with the terms of the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s, but which Israel has failed to abide by amid its refusal to consider direct negotiations of any kind with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group.
Israel, meanwhile, has said that they would be willing to extend the ceasefire indefinitely but have also stressed that a long-term agreement should include the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip. Hamas has scoffed at this demand, pointing out that it was Hamas fighters that had prevented the full-scale infiltration and re-occupation of Gaza by Israeli forces in recent days.
Before the ceasefire, Israeli forces pulled out of major Gaza cities and redeployed hundreds of meters inside the border, although air strikes and shelling on Gazan cities continued.
More than 1,886 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 10,000 injured in the month-long conflict. 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.
67 Israelis — 95 percent of whom have been soldiers — have also died.
On Thursday, US President Barack Obama put pressure on intensive ceasefire negotiations in Cairo by saying Gaza could not remain cut off from the world forever.
Britain, France and Germany have put forward an initiative that could bring EU representatives to the Gaza border, a diplomatic source said.
With the ceasefire due to end at 8 a.m. on Friday, Egypt’s intelligence chief Mohamed 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 extend the calm which went into force on Tuesday.
“There is no agreement to extend the ceasefire,” Hamas’ exiled deputy leader Mussa Abu Marzouq wrote on Twitter.
With the guns silent, some semblance of normal life had returned to Gaza over the last three days with traffic clogging the streets and people bustling about their business as shops, banks and markets resume business.
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.”
Gaza must be opened
Ahead of Thursday’s talks, Obama insisted that Gaza could not remain forever cut off by Israel’s blockade, now in its eighth year.
“Long-term, there has to be a recognition that Gaza cannot sustain itself permanently closed off from the world,” Obama told a news conference in Washington, saying the Palestinians needed to see “some prospects for an opening of Gaza so that they do not feel walled off.”
Lifting the blockade is the main Palestinian demand in the ceasefire talks in Cairo.
Although Israel has expressed willingness to extend the truce indefinitely, there was no immediate word on its response to that.
“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.
EU force at Rafah?
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 Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority 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.
Netanyahu on Wednesday said Abbas’s Palestinian Authority had an “important” role to play in Gaza, particularly in the reconstruction efforts.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for EU “inspectors” to monitor Gaza’s borders, Germany’s mass-circulation Bild daily reported on Thursday.