Israel and Hamas appeared to be moving closer to an agreement on a long-term ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
Israel and Hamas close to deal
TEL AVIV // Israel and Hamas appeared to be moving closer to an agreement on a long-term ceasefire in the Gaza Strip yesterday, with negotiations seeming to be taking an urgent tone before Israeli elections expected to usher a hawkish government that would probably adopt a more aggressive approach with the Palestinians. In Egypt, which has been mediating talks between Israel and the Palestinian group that rules Gaza, Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, was quoted as saying: "There are positive signs that in the next few days we will reach an understanding on a truce and a partial reopening of crossing points" into Gaza.
In Israel, Ehud Olmert, the outgoing prime minister, met on Saturday evening and yesterday morning with Ehud Barak, the defence minister, and Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, to discuss developments with the ceasefire. Haaretz, a left-wing daily newspaper, yesterday cited unidentified Israeli and Palestinian officials as saying that "the first positive news [on a truce] may be possible even before the parliamentary elections" tomorrow.
However, Mr Olmert later yesterday tried to dampen expectations of an imminent ceasefire, calling press reports "exaggerated and damaging". The escalating efforts to clinch a truce come three weeks after Israel unilaterally ended a bloody, 22-day onslaught in the Gaza Strip that sought to curtail rocket fire by Gaza militants on its southern communities that had been going on for years. About 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the assault and more than 5,000 others were wounded.
Israel wants an agreement to include a halt to cross-border rocket attacks, cessation of arms-smuggling into Gaza and the release of Cpl Gilad Shalit, a soldier captured and held by Hamas since June 2006. Hamas wants Israel to end an economic blockade on the impoverished territory and free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails in return for the soldier. Israel controls all border crossings into Gaza except Rafah, which is operated by Egypt, and has severely cut the amount of goods in and out of the besieged enclave since Hamas grabbed power in Gaza in June 2007.
Yesterday, Israeli media reported that the Egyptian draft included a ceasefire for 18 months in the Gaza Strip with an option to renew it for another 18 months at the end; a full opening of Israel's crossings into Gaza in return for Cpl Shalit; and the renewed opening of the Rafah border. The report added that a pact would also obligate Israel to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. On Saturday, Mr Barak indicated that Israel would be prepared to let out Palestinian inmates - including some of whom have been convicted for attacks that killed Israelis - when he cautioned Israelis that they would have to pay a "difficult and painful" price for the agreement.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said in a statement yesterday that a truce pact was expected in the coming days "if we receive from Egypt convincing answers related to siege and crossings". The movement's main leaders in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar, are said to be favouring the ceasefire agreement while Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader who lives in Syria, is believed to be more resistant to it. News agencies reported that Mr Zahar, who has been in hiding since the Israeli offensive began, was in the Syrian capital of Damascus yesterday to discuss the pact with the group's exiled leadership after Israel allowed him to leave Gaza on Saturday.
The intense ceasefire efforts have not put an end to sporadic violence between Israel and Gaza militant factions. Yesterday, two rockets were fired from Gaza against southern Israel, one damaging three cars near the town of Sderot and another striking outside the city of Ashkelon. The flurry of diplomatic activity to reach an agreement comes before tomorrow's parliamentary elections in Israel, in which polls have projected a victory for the hard-line Likud Party. A truce deal that includes the release of Cpl Shalit is expected to help draw more voters to the ruling centrist Kadima Party, which is headed by Ms Livni and is close behind Likud in the polls.