Palestinians accept new Egyptian proposal for 72-hour cease-fire with Israel
CAIRO (AP) - Palestinian negotiators on Sunday said they had accepted an Egyptian proposal for a new 72-hour truce with Israel, clearing the way for a possible resumption of talks on a long-term cease-fire arrangement in the Gaza Strip.
Israel had walked away from cease-fire talks over the weekend, after militants resumed their rocket fire on southern Israel with the expiration of an earlier three-day truce. Sunday's decision was aimed at bringing the Israelis back to the negotiations.
"We are here to look for an agreement. We cannot have an agreement without talks, so we accepted an Egyptian proposal to have a cease-fire for 72 hours in order to resume the talks," said a Palestinian negotiator.
He, along with other Palestinian negotiators who confirmed the decision, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations with the media.
There was no immediate Israeli response. But already there were signs that the Palestinian delegation was softening earlier demands for a full lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza.
The Egyptian-mediated talks are aimed at reaching a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas following the heaviest fighting between the bitter enemies since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
In nearly a month of fighting, more than 1,900 Palestinians were killed, including hundreds of civilians, nearly 10,000 were wounded and thousands of homes were destroyed. Sixty-seven people were killed on the Israeli side, including three civilians.
The fighting ended in a 72-hour cease-fire last Tuesday, during which Egypt had hoped to mediate a longer-term agreement. But when the three-day window expired, militants resumed their rocket fire, sparking Israeli reprisals. The violence has continued throughout the weekend, albeit at a lower level than during the height of the war.
Earlier Sunday, Palestinians threatened to quit the negotiations if Israel did not return, while Israeli leaders said there would be no talks while the rocket fire continues.
"Israel will not negotiate under fire," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, warning that his country's military campaign "will take time."
The Israeli military said rocket fire continued throughout the day, with at least 24 projectiles fired into Israel. Israel responded with some 35 airstrikes, the military said.
Gaza officials said at least three people, including a 14-year-old boy and a woman, were killed in the airstrikes. Israel said it closed a main cargo crossing used to deliver goods into Gaza in response to rocket fire.
Hamas is seeking an end to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has been in place in varying forms for seven years and decimated the local economy.
Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent arms smuggling, and it says Hamas must disarm as part of any long-term arrangement. Hamas has said handing over its arsenal, which is believed to include several thousand remaining rockets, is inconceivable.
The blockade has greatly limited the movement of Palestinians in and out of the impoverished territory of 1.8 million people for jobs and study abroad. It has also limited the flow of goods into Gaza, and blocked virtually all of Gaza's exports.
An Egyptian crackdown on a network of smuggling tunnels along Gaza's southern border has made things even tougher by robbing Hamas of its key economic pipeline and weapons conduit. As a result, Gaza's economy is in the doldrums, with an unemployment rate above 50 percent and Hamas unable to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of workers.
A senior Palestinian negotiator acknowledged that the Palestinians would make more modest demands if cease-fire talks resume. He said they will seek an end to the bloodshed in Gaza, internationally backed efforts to rebuild and an easing - but not an end - to the blockade.
"We might not get everything we want, particularly on freedom of movement. But we believe the Israelis and the world have gotten the point that Gazans should live normally and things should be much better than today," said one negotiator.
An easing of the blockade would mean an increased role for Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted in the Hamas takeover seven years ago. Officials said that the rival Palestinian factions were already exploring options that would give Abbas a foothold in Gaza, including the likely control of its border crossing with Egypt.
At a minimum, though, Israel will want guarantees that the rocket fire will stop. A cease-fire that ended a weeklong round of fighting in 2012 promised an easing of the blockade, but was never implemented - in part because of sporadic rocket attacks by various armed factions in Gaza.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said Hamas could get the blockade lifted by accepting longstanding international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.
"Basically what they are trying now to do is not to lift the blockade," she told a news conference. "They want to get legitimacy as a terrorist organization, without accepting the requirements of the international community."
The current Gaza war escalated from the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank in June. Israel blamed the killings on Hamas and launched a massive arrest campaign, rounding up hundreds of its members in the West Bank, as Hamas and other militants unleashed rocket fire from Gaza.
On July 8, Israel launched an air campaign on the coastal territory, sending in ground troops nine days later to target rocket launchers and cross-border tunnels built by Hamas for attacks inside Israel.
In the West Bank, Palestinian health officials said an 11-year-old boy was shot and killed by Israeli forces in a refugee camp near the city of Hebron.
Witnesses and relatives of the boy said Israeli security forces opened fire after a military vehicle was hit by stone throwers. They said the boy was standing on the road in front of his home at the time.
The military said its forces encountered a "violent riot" and opened fire toward the protesters in the refugee camp. The military acknowledged that the boy was killed in the violence and said it was investigating.
Earlier Sunday, vandals torched a car in the Palestinian village of Kafr Yasuf in the West Bank and sprayed Hebrew graffiti that read "price tag," Israeli police said. The phrase is commonly used by Jewish extremists in attacks on Palestinians or their property. Such acts have been widely condemned by Israeli leaders.