Gaza cease-fire negotiations under way, but fighting rages on (+video)

An Israeli envoy was dispatched to Cairo to take part in Gaza cease-fire negotiations sponsored by Egypt. Turkey and Qatar will also take part.

By , Staff writer

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As Israel's "Pillar of Defense" operation against Hamas and other Islamist militant groups in Gaza enters its sixth day, negotiations for a cease-fire are progressing in Cairo, according to reports. But a resolution is not imminent, despite indications that the "window is closing" for Israel to conduct military operations without opposition from its Western allies.

Independent Palestinian outlet Ma'an News Agency reports that Palestinian Liberation Organization official Nabil Shaath said Sunday that negotiations in Cairo between Palestinian groups and an unnamed Israeli delegate are progressing, but that a cease-fire "is not likely to take effect in the coming days." Mr. Shaath, who has been in contact with Hamas officials over the status of talks, added that the negotiations are being sponsored by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, with Turkey and Qatar also playing significant roles.

Recommended: Who is Hamas? 5 questions about the Palestinian militant group.

Although the Israeli prime minister and the defense ministry declined to comment, an anonymous Israeli official confirmed to Haaretz that an Israeli envoy is indeed in Cairo to negotiate a cease-fire.

The Jerusalem official confirmed an Associated Press report that said that an Israeli envoy landed on Sunday afternoon at Cairo’s main international airport and was whisked away in a heavily fortified convoy of vehicles. The Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry declined to comment.

Senior officials in Jerusalem say that Israel is keen to reach a two-stage cease-fire agreement. The first stage would be based on a principle that Israel has used many times before in its dealings with Palestinian militant groups, whereby if they cease their attacks on Israeli targets, the Israel Defense Forces would halt its offensive operations. An Egyptian official involved in the talks confirmed that this was the direction of the current negotiations, telling Haaretz that “we are working toward a small cease-fire before trying to achieve a big cease-fire.”

The Jerusalem Post writes that Hamas is seeking an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza and to Israel's assassinations of its officials, like the high-profile assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, which prompted the current fighting. In addition to an end to rockets into its territory, Israel wants Hamas and other Palestinian militants to stop smuggling weapons into Gaza and to stay away from the security zone between Gaza and Israel. The Post notes that Hamas officials were unaware of the Israeli delegate's presence in Cairo.

The movement towards a cease-fire comes as "a turning point has been reached in the Gaza conflict," writes BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus on the BBC's liveblog of the Gaza conflict.

Israel was given a window within which to act by its key allies in the US and Europe who largely held Hamas responsible for this upsurge in fighting. But now that window is closing. If Israel continues with its air operations, the civilian death toll will only mount further and the diplomatic support for Israel will melt away. A weekend of frantic diplomatic activity involving Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar has so far produced little. But the common goal now is to try to halt this conflict before Israel unleashes a ground operation which will only push the casualty toll ever higher.

The Guardian offers some initial signs that Western support for Israel in the current conflict is reaching its limits. Both the US and British leaders backed Israel's response so far, but offered only lukewarm support for a ground assault, the likely next stage of the conflict should it escalate. US President Barack Obama, speaking while on a tour of Asia, said that "Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory."

"There is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." The US president said it would be preferable if the Israeli operation against rocket launchers in Gaza could be accomplished without "a ramping-up of military activity".

Obama added: "It's not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It's also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they're much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded."

Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, told Sky News that the ruling Hamas party bore "principal responsibility" for the current conflict, but added that a ground invasion would "lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy they have in this situation."

Reuters reports that there is only limited support within Israel for a ground invasion. Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi said that from his conversations with members of the Israeli government, he understood "there is no interest at all" to invade the Gaza Strip. And while 84 percent of Israelis support the "Pillar of Defense" operation, only 30 percent back a ground invasion of Gaza, according to a Haaretz poll.

The current conflict has left more than 90 people dead, writes Reuters. Three of those were Israelis, and more than half were noncombatants.

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