Saturday 16 December 2017

Israel accepts fresh Gaza ceasefire

Palestinian paramedics look after the injured
Palestinian paramedics look after the injured
Smoke rises over Gaza City as Israel accepted Egypt's ceasefire proposal
Smoke from a fire caused by an Israeli strike rises over Gaza City (AP)

Israel has accepted an Egyptian proposal for a new 72-hour ceasefire with Gaza militants.

The move clears the way for the resumption of indirect talks on a long-term ceasefire arrangement in Hamas-ruled Gaza after a month of heavy fighting.

Egypt brokered a similar truce last week. But after the three-day window, militants resumed rocket fire on Israel and new fighting erupted.

Israeli officials said they accepted Egypt's latest offer on Sunday. But they said they were wary after last week's breakdown.

In Cairo, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said the truce would take effect at midnight local time and would create the atmosphere to resume humanitarian aid to the battered Gaza Strip and allow for indirect talks on a more lasting and comprehensive deal.

Hamas is seeking an end to a painful Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza, while Israel wants Hamas to dismantle its formidable arsenal of rockets and other weapons.

Palestinian negotiators, who had been meeting with Egyptian officials throughout the weekend, said they accepted the proposal. Later, Israeli officials announced their agreement.

An Israeli official said an Israeli delegation would head to Cairo on Monday if the truce held overnight.

Qais Abdelkarim, a member of the Palestinian delegation, said indirect talks with the Israelis would begin on Monday morning.

"We are going to engage in serious talks in the 72 hours to end the blockade and deliver humanitarian materials into Gaza with the hope of reaching a lasting cease-fire," he said. The goal, he added, was to end the blockade, which he called "the reason for the war".

The Egyptian-mediated talks are aimed at reaching a long-term arrangement following the heaviest fighting between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic militant group took control of Gaza 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 ceasefire last Tuesday, during which Egypt had hoped to mediate a long-term deal. But when the three-day window expired, militants resumed their rocket fire, sparking Israeli reprisals. The violence continued throughout the weekend, including a burst of fighting late on Sunday ahead of the expected ceasefire.

The Israeli military reported some 30 rocket attacks out of Gaza, while Palestinian medical officials said seven people were killed in Israeli airstrikes, all on Sunday. Among the dead was the bodyguard of a Hamas leader, the medical officials said.

Israel had walked away from ceasefire talks over the weekend, after militants resumed their rocket fire. "Israel will not negotiate under fire," prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, warning that his country's military campaign "will take time".

Last week's talks failed in part because Israel rejected Hamas' demand for a complete end to the blockade. Israel says the closure is a necessary security measure, and officials do not want to make any concessions that would allow Hamas to declare victory.

A senior Palestinian negotiator acknowledged that the Palestinians would make more modest demands this time around. 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 the negotiator.

Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent arms smuggling and that Hamas must disarm. Hamas has said handing over its arsenal, which is believed to include several thousand remaining rockets, is out of the question.

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 exports.

An Egyptian crackdown on smuggling tunnels along Gaza's southern border has made things even tougher by robbing Hamas of its key economic pipeline and weapons conduit. Gaza's unemployment rate is above 50% and Hamas is unable to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of workers.

An easing of the blockade would mean an increased role for Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted by Hamas seven years ago. Officials said that the rival Palestinian factions were already exploring options that would give Abbas, who now governs in the West Bank, 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 2012 ceasefire 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 long-standing international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

"They want to get legitimacy as a terrorist organization, without accepting the requirements of the international community," she told a news conference.

Press Association

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