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Israel and Palestinians extend truce by 24 hours

Thomas Coex, AFP | Beit Hanoun district, Gaza City, August 18.

Egypt late on Monday announced a 24-hour extension in talks between Israel and Hamas aimed at salvaging a long-term arrangement that would allow reconstruction of the Gaza Strip following a month-long war that has killed some 2,000 people.

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The announcement came just minutes before a temporary truce was set to expire at midnight, averting a resumption of the fighting that has caused devastating damage across Gaza and disrupted life throughout southern Israel.

“Palestinians and Israelis agreed on extending the ceasefire by 24 hours to continue current negotiations,” the Egyptian government said in a statement. Palestinian and Israeli officials confirmed they had accepted Egypt’s request for an extension.

A Palestinian negotiator said the sides had exchanged draft proposals for a long-term truce that were to be addressed during the 24-hour extension in talks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to brief the media.

Since last week, Egypt has been hosting indirect talks between Israel and the Hamas militant group, which holds power in Gaza, aimed at ending the war.

FRANCE 24’s Ashraf Khalil described the 24-hour extension as “a sign of extreme optimism” considering the complexity of the negotiations.

“This last-minute extension, and particularly the brief measure of it, really is a strong indicator that both sides must feel they’re on the brink of something,” he reported from Cairo. “There’s going to be a lot of pressure – they’re creating a situation where they have only one day. That means they already have something in the bag that’s acceptable to both sides, or they really feel they’re close to a solution. At any rate, there seems to be an awareness that they can’t keep extending things.”

Gaza health ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said on Monday the death toll from the fighting had jumped to over 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, while UN officials, who often take more time to verify figures, put the number at 1,976.

Thousands of homes were destroyed, and tens of thousands of people remain huddled in UN shelters. Israel lost 67 people, all but three of them soldiers.

Long-term guarantees

Egyptian mediators shuttled between the sides on Monday, but gaps appeared to remain wide. Hamas is demanding an end to a seven-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that has devastated the local economy. Israel wants guarantees that Hamas, which fired thousands of rockets into Israel during the fighting, will be disarmed.

In an apparent attempt to pressure Hamas, Egypt said early on Monday it would co-host an international fundraising conference for Gaza, but only if a deal is reached. Israel, meanwhile, said in recent months it had arrested nearly 100 Hamas operatives in the West Bank in an alleged plot to topple Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Gaza blockade, imposed after Hamas seized control of Gaza 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.

Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent arms smuggling, but critics say the measures have amounted to collective punishment. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already said this week he would not allow Hamas to win a diplomatic victory at the negotiating table.

An Egyptian compromise proposal has called for an easing of the blockade to allow more movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza. Although it would not disarm Hamas, it would give Abbas, whose forces were routed by Hamas in the 2007 takeover, a foothold back in Gaza and put him in charge of border crossings and internationally backed reconstruction efforts.

Larger issues, including Israel’s calls for disarmament and Hamas demands to reopen Gaza’s sea and airports, would be left for later talks.

Abbas talks to Hamas

As the weekly drama of truce deadline played out, the Palestinian leader arrived in Doha for talks with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and the Qatari emir, who is a key backer of Hamas.

An official in Abbas’s office told AP that Abbas would urge Meshaal and the Qataris to support the Egyptian ceasefire efforts. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media about internal deliberations.

Robert Serry, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, urged the parties “to reach an understanding on a durable cease-fire which also addresses the underlying issues afflicting Gaza”. “At the very least, we hope that the ceasefire will be extended and the situation will remain quiet,” he said.

Palestinian negotiators said there was no desire for a return to fighting.

“The war is behind us now,” said Ziad Nakhleh, head of the Islamic Jihad faction within the Palestinian delegation in Cairo. “We are not returning to war.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)

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