Clock ticking on Gaza truce talks in Cairo
Gaza City (CNN) — As negotiators in Cairo scramble to extend the longest cease-fire of the current Gaza conflict, a Hamas official told supporters in Gaza City that the group is ready to resume fighting if it doesn’t win key concessions in the talks.
“We are ready to return to the battle if the Palestinian demands are not met in Cairo,” Hamas spokesman Mosher al-Masry told a crowd of Hamas supporters waving the group’s green flags.
Hamas wants Israel to end border restrictions that limit the flow of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Israel wants Hamas to give up its weapons.
The cease-fire that has at least temporarily ended the bloodshed expires at 8 a.m. Friday (1 a.m. ET).
Israel, which withdrew its ground forces from Gaza on Tuesday, is willing to extend the truce unconditionally, Dore Gold, a senior foreign policy adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told CNN Thursday.
But in a heated interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on “New Day,” Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan said Israel must show signs of willingness to reach a broader deal before the cease-fire expires.
“There is no decision to undermine the talks, there is no decision to go back to fight,” he said. “But we have to evaluate what the Israelis are doing, what the Israelis are saying.”
Officials from Israel and the Palestinian side — including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestine Liberation Organization — are communicating through Egyptian intermediaries in an effort to reach agreement on extending the truce.
“We are working so hard now,” said Saeb Erakat, a veteran negotiator for the PLO.
“We’re trying to sustain the 72 hours, and we’re working now to extend the 72 hours,” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday.
Hoping for a breakthrough
A Palestinian official said Thursday morning that there has been progress in the talks so far, but declined to give any details.
“I am not sure how or when it will come, but we hope for a breakthrough,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Asked if the truce would be extended, the official indicated that negotiators are hoping for a longer-term agreement beyond just a cease-fire.
The warring sides’ positions are far apart.
Israel says Hamas must disarm, particularly giving up its rockets, as part of any larger deal that might lead to the end of border restrictions and greater economic freedom for Gaza residents.
Hamas, meanwhile, says the blockade must end before a lasting peace deal can be reached. Israel must also stop activities in response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teens who were later found dead and facilitate reconstruction of the territory’s devastated infrastructure, Hamdan told CNN.
“We can’t talk about future while the Israelis are putting a pistol to our heads or a knife to our necks,” he said.
Gold told “New Day” that the border restrictions and Gaza’s economic and redevelopment needs can’t be separated because they are “intimately linked.”
“If you want cement for building homes or schools, you’ve got to make sure the cement goes there and not rebuilding attack tunnels that go into Israel,” he said.
He also said Hamas’ demands for a Mediterranean Sea port raise serious security concerns for Israel.
“We’re of course concerned if something like that occurs, that the Iranians or others will bring missile boats into the Mediterranean and to that Gaza port,” Dore said. “So it’s not so simple as to say, ‘Give them a port.'”
One thing that is under discussion, a German diplomatic source told CNN Wednesday, is a proposal to reopen the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt under the auspices of a European Union mission. EU officials operated a similar mission from 2005 to 2007, when Hamas assumed power in Gaza.
Egypt closed the Rafah crossing after the country’s military ousted Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsy. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt’s new government has declared a terrorist group.
‘No sympathy for Hamas’
U.S. officials say they will have representatives in Cairo, but won’t take part in the talks.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he was pleased by the cease-fire.
“The question now is, how do we build on this temporary cessation of violence and move forward in a sustainable way?” he said.
Both Israel and the United States consider Hamas to be a terrorist group, but Obama said the issue goes beyond that organization.
“I have no sympathy for Hamas,” Obama said. “I have great sympathy for ordinary people who are struggling within Gaza.”
More than 1,800 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during the conflict, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The United Nations estimates that approximately 65,000 people in the small, impoverished territory lost their homes in the fighting.
Maen Areikat, the PLO ambassador to the United States, suggested Obama’s concerns should be broader.
“We expect President Obama and the United States to have sympathy to Palestinian victims, to have sympathy to the Palestinians who have been enduring a brutal military occupation for the last 47 years,” he told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
Israeli regret over civilian deaths
In Jerusalem on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the performance of his country’s troops in the conflict, again blamed Hamas for civilian casualties, and expressed hopes that the Cairo talks could set the stage for a broader peace.
He said Israel “deeply regrets” civilian deaths, saying they were caused by Hamas placing rockets and other military targets in crowded population centers.
“The responsibility for this tragedy belongs with Hamas,” Netanyahu said.
Israel, however, has come under growing international criticism over the number of civilian casualties in the conflict, notably from the United Nations, which accused the Israeli military of shelling U.N. shelters.
It’s unclear how many of the Palestinian dead were militants. The United Nations has estimated that at least 70% of the dead were civilians.
The Israel Defense Forces says it estimates about 900 militants were killed in the Gaza operation.
Israeli officials have said 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel died in the conflict.
Rocket launcher in residential area
In Gaza City, reporters from France 24 and India’s NDTV have shown at least one rocket launcher located in a residential area.
It’s in a small vacant block of land, surrounded by homes and hotels where many foreign reporters have been staying. A U.N. building is close by, and video footage has shown children playing on the launcher.
Other reporters, including from CNN, who have tried to get close have been warned off and told the area is now a closed military zone.
The PLO’s Areikat sought to play down the significance of the launcher.
“We don’t know the circumstances of this particular rocket launcher,” he told CNN. “And if there has been incidents in which fighters from Palestinian factions fired at Israel from civilian populated centers, I think they were isolated centers. But to portray that this was the rule and not the exception is not a fair representation of what is happening in Gaza.”
Hamdan went further, calling allegations of rocket fire from civilian areas nothing more than “Israeli lies.”
“We challenge anyone to prove there were any rockets launched from civilian areas,” he said.
In fact, he claimed, Israel intentionally bombed civilians to punish Palestinians after strikes on rocket sites in open areas failed to achieve results.
“Israel is murdering innocent people on purpose,” he said.