Gaza cease-fire extended as negotiators in Cairo remain far apart (+video)

The new truce is to last through Monday. Talks in Cairo on ending the conflict in Gaza mark the first time Israel and Hamas have negotiated, albeit indirectly, on something other than prisoner exchanges.

By , Staff writer

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    Displaced Palestinian family members passed the time at a UN school that doubled as a refuge in Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, earlier this week.
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Israel and Hamas extended their cease-fire for another five days this morning, the longest cessation of fighting since the current conflict in Gaza began last month.

The longer break is meant to give negotiations in Cairo more time and thus a greater chance of success. But a huge gulf between the parties remains, and the extension was almost immediately breached, with the Israeli military launching strikes in response to a slew of rockets from Gaza, according to Reuters.

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The rapid violation of the cease-fire underlines the challenges that this cease-fire will face. Every barrage in either direction only deepens the mistrust at the negotiating table.

Negotiators are still far apart: Hamas wants an end to the blockade on Gaza, but Israel first wants an end to the rockets and the destruction of all of the tunnels that have allowed Hamas to move militants and weapons into the seaside territory.

The Associated Press laid out the parties' demands:

Hamas is seeking an end to a crippling blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007. The blockade has greatly limited the movement of Palestinians in and out of the territory of 1.8 million people. It has also restricted the flow of goods into Gaza and blocked virtually all exports.

Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent arms smuggling, and officials are reluctant to make any concessions that would allow Hamas to declare victory.

Israel wants Hamas to disarm, or at least be prevented from re-arming. Hamas has recovered from previous rounds of violence with Israel, including a major three-week ground operation in January 2009 and another weeklong air offensive in 2012. It now controls an arsenal of thousands of rockets, some powerful, with long ranges. Gaza militants fired more than 3,000 rockets toward Israel during the war.

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The proposal leaves the key areas of disagreement, including Hamas’ demand for a full lifting of the blockade and Israeli calls for Hamas to disarm, to later negotiations.

The Times of Israel writes that the extension of the cease-fire does not indicate anything promising in terms of negotiations. The Palestinian team's return home to consult with leaders may mark the end of their time in Cairo.

Five days in the MIddle East is close to an eternity. Yet, as things stand, it is far from clear that the 120-hour truce will enable an agreement. Hamas wants promises from anybody with the exception of Egypt who can guarantee that Israel will agree to a seaport and airport in Gaza in the foreseeable future. But nobody can make any such guarantees without a Hamas promise to disarm. Meanwhile, the Hamas military wing is urging the political leadership not to compromise. According to Palestinian sources in Gaza, it wants the conflict resumed so long as Israel is not prepared to sanction a dramatic change in the Gaza reality.

And thus the likelihood of a re-escalation is certainly as realistic as the likelihood of an agreement, if not more so. Hamas is under siege in Cairo, not just in Gaza, by three hostile players — Israel, the PA [Palestinian Authority] and Egypt. It may well decide not to return to the Cairo talks at all.

But, as Haaretz points out, the talks in Cairo brought about one under-the-radar diplomatic feat: the first negotiations, albeit indirect, between Israel and Hamas on something other than prisoner exchanges. "They’re discussing permanent arrangements, the kind that are made between states." 

That accomplishment comes as differences grow between the US and Israel. The Times of Israel reports that Israeli leaders confirmed a report from The Wall Street Journal that the White House halted a routine shipment of Hellfire missiles to Israel amid frustration at its inability to exert any influence in the current conflict.

Haaretz sums up the Wall Street Journal report:

According to a senior U.S. official, the decision to tighten oversight and require approval of higher-ranking officials over shipments, was intended to make clear to Israel that there is no "blank check" from Washington in regards to the U.S.-made weapons the IDF makes use of in its Gaza operations.

The United States is Israel's strongest friend, a senior official in the Obama administration told the Wall Street Journal, but "[t]he notion that they are playing the United States, or that they're manipulating us publicly, completely miscalculates their place in the world."

Senior U.S. officials did not mince words when discussing what they called the "reckless and untrustworthy" conduct of Netanyahu and his advisors during the Gaza operation, the Wall Street Journal reported, and American officials quoted in the report described a recent telephone conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama as "particularly combative."

Meanwhile, with Israeli distrust of the United Nations also running deep, Israel's military has launched its own investigation into many "exceptional" incidents with significant Palestinian casualties, Haaretz reports.

That panel is investigating specific incidents, mostly those in which civilians were killed and claims were made that they were harmed by the IDF. But the committee is also examining broader issues connected with the fighting.

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Interim findings have so far been reached in 15 cases in the recent round of fighting, while investigations of dozens of other cases have started and many others are expected.

Among the cases are those in which a large number of civilians were killed or injured, including attacks on UN facilities as well as the battle in Rafah after 1st. Lt. Hadar Goldin was abducted by a Hamas cell.

Allegations of bias against Israel have gone hand-in-hand with every UN inquiry into conflicts between Israel and Gaza.

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