Ceasefire negotiations stepped up in Cairo

As UN chief Ban Ki-moon renewed calls from Cairo on Wednesday for an immediate ceasefire, Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil (pictured) told a press conference his group had given Egypt its views on a truce plan, without divulging any details.


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REUTERS -Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip appeared to make some progress on Wednesday, but differences remained over the fineprint.

Arab and Western diplomats said the sides were at odds over how long a proposed truce would last. Other sticking points include what specific steps Egypt would take to control its border with Gaza and how quickly Israel would withdraw its forces and reopen Gaza’s border crossings.

Signs of progress

A senior Israeli official said Egypt was pushing for agreement on a ceasefire “by the weekend”. But the official said Israeli leaders were non-committal about that timetable.

The official said “progress” was being made in negotiations with Cairo and international powers on new security arrangements along Gaza’s border with Egypt to prevent Hamas from rearming, Israel’s chief demand. He gave no details.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier returns to the Middle East on Thursday to try to hammer out some of the security assurances, diplomats said.

Germany was prepared to provide training, know-how and equipment to Egyptian forces to stop Hamas arms smuggling.  Israeli officials said they were also discussing a naval monitoring force with the Germans.

Senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad will travel to Cairo on Thursday to discuss border security issues.

Hamas initially rebuffed the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, but officials said progress was being made on most of the outstanding issues. Hamas said it gave Egypt its views on the plan but did not disclose those views publicly.

Hamas wants Israeli troops to immediately withdraw and Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt reopened.

Sticking points

Hamas has rejected an open-ended arrangement, seeking instead a more limited six-month truce that could then be renewed, according to Arab diplomats.

Israel opposes setting a time limitation.

“Israel will not accept a situation where Hamas gets a temporary period of quiet just to rearm and regroup and that ends with further rocket barrages on Israel,” said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Hamas also wants a ceasefire to be implemented in a “single package” because it does not believe Israel will meet its obligations if the ceasefire is implemented over time, diplomats said.

But Israel is sceptical that Hamas will honour its commitments and does not want its hands tied.

A Western diplomat briefed on the talks said the Egyptian proposal may be implemented in as many as three phases.

Initially, the diplomat said, Israeli and Palestinian fighters would abide by a “lull” in fighting to allow for the establishment of a humanitarian corridor to aid Gaza’s 1.5 million residents. Israeli troops could remain in parts of the coastal territory during this phase but would not advance.

During a second phase, border security arrangements to combat arms smuggling would be finalised and the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt would be reopened under the auspices of European monitors, the diplomat said.

Provided both sides hold their fire, Israel would complete its withdrawal and open Gaza’s other border crossings to let in goods, the diplomat said.

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