Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Egypt-mediated Gaza truce talks hardened their positions yesterday ahead of the expiration of a five-day ceasefire, though both sides appeared reluctant to return to the deadly all-out fighting that has destroyed large parts of the densely populated coastal strip.
The month-long Israel-Hamas war has killed more than 1,900 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, according to Palestinian and UN officials. The Palestinian Health Ministry put the Gaza death toll at 2,016. Israel has lost 67 people, all but three of them soldiers.
Since last week, indirect talks have been taking place in Cairo through Egyptian mediators in an effort to broker a substantive end to the war.
On Sunday, Palestinian and Israeli delegations resumed the talks following weekend consultations across the Middle East, but gaps between the two sides remain wide, with each staking out maximalist positions.
The Gaza blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt since Hamas took control of the strip in 2007, remains the main stumbling block. It has greatly limited the movement of Palestinians in and out of the territory of 1.8 million people, restricted the flow of goods into Gaza and blocked virtually all exports.
A Palestinian negotiator, Qais Abdul Karim, said that on Sunday, Israel pressed for guarantees that Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza would be disarmed, while the Palestinians demanded an end to the blockade without preconditions.
The current ceasefire was set to end at midnight yesterday, but Ziad Nakhleh, head of the Islamic Jihad faction within the Palestinian delegation in Cairo, said he expected it to be extended if a deal was not reached by then.
“The war is behind us now,” he said. “We are not returning to war.”
Hamas has repeatedly said it will not give up its weapons, while Israel says it needs to maintain some degree of control over Gaza crossings to prevent the smuggling of weapons and weapons production materials into the coastal strip.
Karim said Egyptian mediators have pressed the Palestinians to present compromise proposals on the border-crossing issue.
The Palestinian delegation was in a meeting in the early hours yesterday over it, but the outcome was not immediately known.
In a possible move to pressure Hamas to soften its positions on the blockade and related issues, Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Boerge Brende yesterday said that his country and Egypt are planning to cohost a donor conference in Cairo for the reconstruction of Gaza.
Brende said invitations will be sent out once there is an agreement in the Egypt-mediated truce talks.
Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni addressed the prospect of renewed hostilities, while signaling that Israel would continue to hold its fire as long as Palestinians did the same.
“If they shoot at us, we will respond,” Livni told Israel Radio.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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