Indirect Israel-Hamas talks on Gaza start in Cairo
By Karin Laub And Maggie Michael, The Associated Press
CAIRO - Israel and Hamas began indirect talks on a new border deal for the blockaded Gaza Strip as a cease-fire ending their month-long war entered its second day Wednesday.
Israel has said it wants the Islamic militant Hamas to disarm, or at least ensure it cannot re-arm, before considering the group's demand that the territory's borders be opened. Israel and Egypt imposed a closure after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007.
The indirect talks are being held in Cairo, with Egyptian mediators shuttling between the delegations.
Disarming Hamas tops the list of Israeli demands presented in a meeting with Egyptian mediators late Tuesday, said an Egyptian security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Israeli delegation has since left for Israel but was to return to Cairo later Wednesday, the official added.
The Palestinian delegation is composed of negotiators from all major factions, including Hamas and was to meet with Egyptian officials later Wednesday to be briefed on Israel's demands, said Bassam Salhi, a Palestinian delegate,.
"The most important thing to us is removing the blockade and start reconstructing Gaza," he said. "There can be no deal without that."
He said the cease-fire, set to expire at 8 a.m. Friday (0500 GMT), would likely be extended if more time for talks is needed.
Talks are still in the early stages, but the outlines of a possible solution have emerged, including internationally funded reconstruction of Gaza overseen by a Palestinian unity government led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Western-backed Abbas lost control of Gaza in the Hamas takeover of 2007.
In a step toward reconstruction, Norway is organizing a donor conference, tentatively set for the beginning of September.
Regarding easing the blockade, a statement by Egyptian intelligence indicated it would not agree to major changes at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, and the onus of lifting the border closure would fall on Israel.
The cease-fire is the longest lull in a war that has killed nearly 1,900 Palestinians — 75 per cent of them civilians according to the United Nations. Israel has lost 67 people, including three civilians.
The war broke out on July 8, when the Israeli military began bombarding targets in Gaza in an attempt to stop Hamas from launching rockets at Israel and then nine days later it sent in ground troops to destroy underground tunnels it said were built to attack Israel.
But in the weeks leading up to the war, Israeli-Palestinian tensions had already been rising following the June killings of three Israeli teenagers, whose bodies were discovered two weeks after they disappeared in the West Bank.
Israel accused Hamas of being behind the abductions, and subsequently carried out a massive ground operation in the West Bank, arresting hundreds of Hamas operatives as part of a manhunt. And in early July, an Arab teenager was abducted and burned alive by Israeli extremists in an apparent revenge attack. Six Jewish Israelis were arrested in that killing.
On Wednesday, Israel's Justice Ministry said it had arrested Hussam al-Qawasmi, the suspected mastermind behind the killing of the Israeli teens, in July.
He allegedly led a three-man cell, all of whom were affiliated with Hamas. The militant group has not claimed any connection to the teens' abduction and killings.
In Gaza, people took advantage on Wednesday of the calm to return to their devastated homes and inspect the damage.
People trickled back to their homes making their way over buckled roads, through dangling power lines and overturned trees to inspect their neighbourhoods. Along the way, rows of flattened buildings alternated with moderately damaged structures — and rare buildings with no damage.
Cars and donkey carts loaded with household goods and mattresses filled the streets and queues formed at banks as people waited to withdraw cash from ATMs.
Crews from utility companies worked frantically to repair downed electricity and telephone lines. Gaza's only power plant was shut down after it was badly damaged by an Israeli attack and repairs are expected to take months.
The densely populated strip now only has 2-3 hours of electricity a day which trickles in from Egypt and Israel.
In the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, some expressed hope that the intensity of the destruction in this round of fighting — the third since Hamas took control of Gaza — would ratchet up enough pressure on the international community to find solutions to the territory's problems.
"The war was necessary to force the blockade to be lifted," said Mohammed Musleh, 27, as he surveyed his now uninhabital third floor apartment damaged by the shelling. "I hope that this time there will be a really permanent solution for it."
Laub reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Peter Enav in Jerusalem contributed to this report.