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Palestinian, Israeli delegations return to Cairo for talks

Aug. 16, 2014 4:06 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 17, 2014 4:01 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Palestinian and Israeli delegations are preparing to return to Cairo late Saturday to continue indirect talks to reach a long-term ceasefire agreement before the current temporary truce expires.

The head of the Palestinian Fatah movement's delegation, Azzam al-Ahmad, told Ma'an that the new negotiations session would begin on Sunday.

Sources close to the delegation told Ma'an that there is a "real chance for ... a permanent ceasefire agreement after the five-day ceasefire ends" at 11:59 p.m. on Monday.

Islamic Jihad officials have said in recent days that the chances for a major agreement at the end of the five-day ceasefire are high.

Meanwhile, Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader, said that the Islamist movement would refuse to delay talks on a seaport and airport as the Egyptian mediators had previously suggested, emphasizing that the re-opening of the two along with lifting of Israel's eight-year siege were key demands of the Palestinian negotiations team.

The Egyptian government persuaded both sides late Wednesday to adhere to a new five-day ceasefire, extending an earlier three-day agreement in order to allow more time to thrash out a longer-term truce.

It got off to a rocky start with Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes, but Saturday marked a sixth day of relative quiet following more than a month of fighting that has killed more than 1,980 Palestinians --mostly civilians -- and 67 -- mostly soldiers -- on the Israeli side.

The Palestinian delegation has insisted that any long-term truce include the end of Israel's eight-year siege on the Gaza Strip, release of dozens of prisoners whom Israel has re-arrested that were released in 2011 as part of the Shalit exchange, re-opening of a seaport and airport in Gaza, and creation of a safe passage between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The demands are consistent with the terms of the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s, but which Israel has failed to abide by amid its refusal to consider direct negotiations of any kind with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group.

Israeli authorities have not directly responded to Palestinian demands but have suggested they would be open to easing the blockade, and previously stressed that a long-term agreement should include the demilitarization of the Strip.

Palestinian militant groups have scoffed at this demand, pointing out that it was Palestinian fighters who prevented the full-scale infiltration and re-occupation of Gaza by Israeli forces in recent weeks.

'Return to status quo is not an option'

The European Union welcomed the ceasefire in Gaza and said it was ready to expand a police mission in Rafah, on the border with Egypt, and train Palestinian Authority customs personnel and police for redeployment in Gaza.

"A return to the status quo prior to the latest conflict is not an option," said the Council of the EU on Friday following a foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels.

It said EU police would monitor the transit of supplies needed for Gaza reconstruction and try to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the territory.

A mission of 70 European police officers was set up at the crossing point in 2005, tasked with monitoring movements of people, goods, and vehicles at Gaza's only window to the outside world that bypasses Israel.

But it was suspended two years later after Hamas was elected to power in the Gaza Strip.

The EU said a durable ceasefire must be accompanied by lifting closures on Gaza and called on militant groups in the territory to disarm.

The Israeli foreign ministry welcomed the call for disarmament -- one of Israel's main demands at Cairo truce talks.

"Commitment to the principle of demilitarization, to be implemented by an effective mechanism, will insure a fundamental change of the situation," it said.

Israel has thus far refused to countenance any major reconstruction effort without full demilitarization.

Lifting the blockade

Azzam al-Ahmad, who heads the Palestinian delegation at Cairo talks, told AFP on Saturday he was quietly optimistic that an agreement for a longer-term truce could be reached.

"We have high hopes of reaching an agreement very soon, before the end of the truce, and perhaps even, very quickly, for a permanent ceasefire," he said.

But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri insisted that there could be no return to peace without a lifting of Israel's eight-year blockade of the beleaguered coastal enclave.

"We can reach an agreement if the Israeli side accepts all the demands of the unified Palestinian delegation, in particular the end of any aggression against our people, the war on Gaza, and the complete lifting of the siege," Abu Zuhri said.

The Israelis have spoken little in public about the negotiations.

With demands seemingly irreconcilable, the Egyptian mediators and both sides will have their work cut out to hammer out a wording for each side to be able to present as some kind of achievement.

Israel refuses to deal directly with Hamas, although the Islamist movement is part of the Palestinian delegation that also includes Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Talks on Sunday are expected to resume on the basis of an Egyptian proposal, seen by AFP, which calls for a lasting ceasefire beyond Monday midnight, and new talks on the thorniest issues, including demands for a seaport and airport in Gaza, to begin in a month's time.

Negotiations about handing over the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers, allegedly held by Palestinian militants, in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails would also be postponed, according to the document.

A buffer zone along Gaza's border with Israel would be gradually reduced and guarded by Palestinian Authority security teams.

AFP contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this report said the five-day ceasefire was scheduled to end late Tuesday. In fact, it is set to end late Monday.
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