Peace bid on knife-edge as Israeli ground invasion threat hangs over Gaza
ISRAEL and Hamas were on the verge of declaring a truce last night, bringing a lull and perhaps a more permanent end to a week-long exchange of missiles which killed at least 130 people.
A last-minute barrage poured into Gaza throughout the day as talks continued up to and beyond the 7pm GMT deadline set by Hamas for an announcement.
Israel sought pledges from Hamas that no more rockets would be fired out of Gaza, that its soldiers patrolling the frontier would not be attacked and that weapons stockpiles would not be replenished.
Hamas demanded the reopening of its borders with Egypt and an end to incursions in Gaza's territorial waters. Hamas officials yesterday afternoon declared a ceasefire would come into force at midnight local time, suggesting that Israel had given ground on easing the blockade.
Israel, however, refused to confirm a formal truce, saying it wanted a temporary lull first. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last night was due to meet US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, said: "Our hand is outstretched in peace to those of our neighbours who want to make peace with us."
He added, as a warning, that the option of a sweeping ground invasion remained on the table.
"The other hand is firmly grasping the sword of David against those who wish to uproot us from this country."
Israeli officials admitted that the changing politics of the Middle East after the Arab Spring, and in particular the rise to power in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, had altered calculations over the country's dealings with the Palestinians.
One, speaking anonymously, said that Egypt's new leaders were balancing their more overt support for Hamas in Gaza with a willingness to continue to play "honest broker".
After days of hosting negotiations between the two sides Egypt has a new responsibility as the deal's effective guarantor.
It will have to reassure Israel it is serious about clamping down on the flow of arms into Gaza, including from Iran.
But Yohanan Plesner, an MP for Mr Netanyahu's Likud Party, said the government was encouraged by the role played by Egypt.
"It was unknown how Egypt would react," he said. "When the moment of truth came the Egyptian leadership moved responsibly and clearly said they were trying to restore stability."
Mark Regev, the Israeli government spokesman, said it wanted not just a respite but long-term calm on the Gaza frontier. "In this part of the world there are no perfect solutions, there are workable solutions," he said.
The rapid embrace of Egypt's mediation and acceptance of the international pressure to avoid a ground invasion could lead to a revaluation of the hawkish reputation held by Mr Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, his defence minister.
The attack on Gaza has, however, boosted Hamas's popularity, at the expense of the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas. That outcome represents a calculated gamble by the Israeli leadership.
Muhammad Deif, the top commander of Hamas's military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades said: "The ground battle is the beginning for liberating Palestine. We demand to mobilise the nation's energy to uproot this enemy." (© Daily Telegraph, London)