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THE CITIZEN BUREAU | 17 AUGUST, 2014

Limited Breakthrough in Cairo Talks, Current Ceasefire Ends on Tuesday

Palestinians who lost relatives


NEW DELHI: A new round of negotiations are to begin in Cairo between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, with pressure mounting to reach a lasting solution as a five day ceasefire is set to expire on Tuesday. 

The new round of talks follow a limited breakthrough in a previous round of negotiations, with reports indicating that six points had been agreed to by both sides, whereas five additional points required further deliberation. The points that had been agreed to reportedly include Israel increasing the daily number of trucks into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom and Nahal Oz crossings to 600 from 250; allowing money transfers from the Palestinian Authority to Gaza to cover salaries of Hamas civil servants; the designated fishing zone will be extended to 12 nautical miles; and 500 permits will be issued to Gazans monthly to use the Erez crossing.

Ma’an news agency reported that Egypt has agreed to open the Rafah crossing, which will be monitored by Palestinian Authority Guards.

The six points that require further negotiation are the focus of this round of talks. Ma’an news quoted Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader, saying that key Palestinian demands include a seaport and airport, release of dozens of prisoners who Israel re-arrested after releasing them in 2011 as part of the Shalit exchange, a creation of a safe passage between Israel and the Gaza strip, and the lifting of the eight year blockade on Gaza.

As Ma’an points out, the demands are consistent with the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and Palestine, but which Israel has failed to abide by, by refusing to negotiate with Hamas.

AFP quoted Azzam al-Ahmad, who heads the Palestinian delegation at the Cairo talks, expressing optimism at the two sides reaching a long-term solution. "We have high hopes of reaching an agreement very soon, before the end of the truce, and perhaps even, very quickly, for a permanent ceasefire,” Ahmad said.

Other leaders however have not painted such an optimistic picture, with Ma’an noting that Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri saying that the lifting on the blockade on Gaza was a non-negotiable. "We can reach an agreement if the Israeli side accepts all the demands of the unified Palestinian delegation, in particular the end of any aggression against our people, the war on Gaza, and the complete lifting of the siege," Abu Zuhri said.

The Israelis, on the other hand, have provided little detail on the negotiations, but there have been Israeli representatives who have spoken out against reports of the talks making headway. Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett referred to the arrangement of transfers to pay Hamas civil servants in Gaza as “political extortion.” “Let’s tell the truth: The money will go to terrorists who are digging [attack tunnels] beneath us, to those producing missiles and to the people shooting at us,” the Israeli minister said, adding that “We can’t fight Hamas with one hand and fund them with the other.”

A similar objection was raised by Israeli Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who said that the emerging deal would “cancel out all the achievements of Operation Protective Edge and turn Hamas into the victor,” as quoted in the Jerusalem Post.

There is however, no indication that talks will succeed in reaching a lasting truce, with both sides reiterating that this was the last attempt at negotiation after a previous round of negotiations failed. The previous Egypt brokered ceasefire that had resulted in talks a week ago failed with the Palestinians saying that Israel was refusing to accept key demands. Qays Abu Layla, member of the Palestinian delegation to Cairo, told Ma’an news agency that Israel’s agenda was to return to the pre-war situation, whereas the lifting of the blockade on Gaza was the key Palestinian demand.

Ma’an news earlier quoted senior Hamas official and member of the Palestinian delegation, Ezzat al-Rishq, saying, “there is a consensus among all the Palestinian factions that Gaza can't return to a blockade... it is a natural right of the people of Gaza to live (freely) as any other people in the world.”

A spokesperson using the nom-de-guerre, Abu Obeida, reiterated the Palestinian position in a televised address, saying that “If there is an agreement, it will be possible to extend the truce, but if there is not, we will ask the delegation to withdraw from the talks.”

Expressing a similar position on the finality of the talks, Israeli Intelligence Minister, Yuval Steinitz, in an address on army radio, said “Either there will be a reasonable resolution of the situation in Gaza, or, if the fire resumes, we will have to consider a broadening of the operation, including an expansion on the ground, overthrowing the Hamas authorities and the demilitarization of Gaza by ourselves.”

The wide disparity in the positions is evinced by the fact that the similar 72 hour ceasefire brokered by Egypt collapsed a week ago, and a previous UN-US brokered 72 hour ceasefire failed within hours. Israel broke the ceasefire by pounding Rafah, killing over 60 people. The reason for the renewed hostilities was the alleged capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian fighters, who reportedly emerged from a tunnel near Rafah. Israel eventually declared the soldier dead, saying he had not been captured but was killed in battle. Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior official in the political wing of Hamas, told Turkish media that an Israeli soldier had been captured, but the incident took place prior to the acceptance of the ceasefire.

There have been several other attempts at a ceasefire, including one by US Secretary of State John Kerry which was rejected by Israel, and a twelve hour humanitarian ceasefire called by the UN which could not be extended by an additional 24 hours. An earlier three-step ceasefire proposal by Egypt was accepted by the Israeli side, but rejected by the Palestinians.

Egypt has previously effectively played the role a mediator, negotiating a 2011 deal that released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and a 2012 ceasefire that followed eight days of conflict that left over a 160 people in Gaza dead. However, Hamas relationship with Egypt has soured since the the military ouster of Egypt’s elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, who had close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is considered an off-shoot. Former general and current Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is widely perceived to have taken a strong stand against Hamas, echoing the United State’s view that considers Hamas a terrorist outfit and a strategic threat.

A major bone of contention between Egypt and Hamas has been the shutting down of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, at the behest of the former. These tunnels served as a crucial economic lifeline for Gaza, and one of Hamas’ key demands has been the opening of the Rafah crossing between the two territories. The first Egyptian proposal however, referred only to crossings “between Israel and Gaza.”

Given the context and the differing stance of Sisi in comparison to Morsi, Egypt’s traditional role as a mediator in the region was compromised, with the ceasefire proposal being widely viewed as a pro-Israeli bailout by the Palestinians. The Egyptian leader however, defended Egypt’s efforts at mediation, saying that the Palestinian demand of an end to the blockade could be achieved once the ceasefire was in place. “What we want is that normal citizens in the Gaza Strip not be subjected to what they are going through now,” Sisi said, with Palestinians continuing to object to the terms that equated what the Palestinians consider a right to resistance with Israeli aggression.

Sisi’s words were perhaps too optimistic, as Palestine’s demand of ending the blockade has still not been addressed, despite the acceptance of a ceasefire and the commencement of talks.

The crisis in the region, which has claimed almost 2000 lives in just over a month, follows the death of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir that sparked four days of violent crashes in Jerusalem. The Israeli police arrested six people in connection with Khdeir’s brutal death, who Palestinians maintain was killed to avenge the death of three Israeli teenagers whose bodies were found in the occupied West Bank.

 Israel pinned the blame for the disappearance and execution of the three teenagers on Hamas, albeit with no certain evidence pointing to Hamas’ involvement. Israel responded to the killings by launching a massive security operation in the West Bank, rounding up Palestinians suspected of being Hamas operatives. The operation involved the tightening of Israel’s system of checkpoints, preventing Palestinians from the West Bank from entering Jerusalem, cancelling permits for prayer, and demolishing the homes of people labeled guilty without evidence or proof of their guilt or any recourse to the judicial process. The searches and mass arrests brought many Palestinians onto the streets in protest, leading to clashes in which at least five Palestinians were killed.

The developments are located in the context of heightened tensions between the two sides following a Palestinian unity deal involving Hamas and Fatah. The Palestine unity deal was the final straw leading to Israel pulling out of the US-led Israel-Palestine peace talks, which had hit various roadblocks on issues such as Israel’s demand that it be recognized as a “Jewish state,” which Palestinian Authority President Abbas did not agree to; the release of Palestinian prisoners after Israel reneged on an agreement to free prisoners in exchange for Palestine halting a push for membership to UN bodies; attacks and increased Israeli construction in besieged Gaza strip and West Bank territory as Palestinians consider Israeli incursion beyond the pre-1967 territorial lines to be illegal and an obstacle to peace, whereas Israel refuses to recognise what has been termed as the 'Green line' as a starting point for negotiations.

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