Update: Gaza ceasefire holds on second day, extension talks under way

Talks on a longer-term truce under way in Cairo; Kerry says militants must give up rockets
By Reuters
Sun 03 Aug 2014 11:01 AM

Update (August 7, 00:29am): Talks on a longer-term truce under way in Cairo; Hamas insists demands must be met or fighting
could resume

A 72-hour Gaza truce
held through its second day on Wednesday and Israel said it was ready to extend
the deal as Egyptian mediators pursued talks with Israelis and Palestinians on
an enduring end to a war that devastated the Hamas-ruled enclave.

Egypt's intelligence chief met a Palestinian
delegation in Cairo, the state news agency MENA said, a day after he conferred
with Israeli representatives. The Palestinian team, led by an official from
Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party, includes envoys from
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.

"The indirect talks between the Palestinians
and Israelis are moving forward," one Egyptian official said, making clear
that the opposing sides were not meeting face to face. "It is still too
early to talk about outcomes but we are optimistic."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri told
reporters his country was working hard for a deal and sought "solutions to
protect the Palestinian people and their interests".

An Israeli official said Israel "has expressed
its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms" beyond a Friday
deadline for the three-day deal that took effect on Tuesday.

A senior Hamas political leader based in Cairo,
Moussa Abu Marzouk, said on Twitter late on Wednesday night that "there is
no agreement" to prolong the ceasefire.

"Extending the 72-hour calm for another period
was not discussed (with Hamas in Cairo today)," said Sami Abu Zuhri, the
Hamas spokesman in Gaza.

Earlier a senior official with the Islamist
movement's armed wing threatened to quit the talks without progress towards
achieving its demands to lift a Gaza blockade and free prisoners held by
Israel.

"Unless the conditions of the resistance are
met, the negotiating team will withdraw from Cairo and then it will be up to
the resistance in the field," a senior commander of the armed wing told
Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israel's armed forces chief, Lieutenant-General
Benny Gantz, said in televised remarks that should Hamas disrupt the calm,
"we will not hesitate to continue to use our force wherever necessary and
with whatever force necessary to ensure the security of Israeli citizens near
and far."

Israel withdrew ground forces from tiny, densely
populated Gaza on Tuesday morning and started a 72-hour, Egyptian-brokered
ceasefire with Hamas as a first step towards a long-term deal.

It showed signs of expecting the truce to last by
lifting official emergency restrictions on civilians living in Israel's south
near Gaza, permitting more public activities and urging everyone to resume
their routines.

Streets in towns in southern Israel, which had been
under daily rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, were filled again with playing
children. The military said that two rocket-warning sirens sounded in the south
proved to be false alarms.

In Gaza, where some half-million people have been
displaced by a month of bloodshed, some residents left UN shelters to trek back
to neighbourhoods where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling
and the smell of decomposing bodies fouls the air.

Palestinians want an end to the Israeli-Egyptian
blockade on impoverished Gaza and the release of prisoners, including those
Israel arrested in a June crackdown in the occupied West Bank after three
Jewish seminary students were kidnapped and killed.

Israel has resisted those demands.

"For Israel the most important issue is the
issue of demilitarisation. We must prevent Hamas from rearming, we must
demilitarise the Gaza Strip," Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, told Reuters television.

Frank Lowenstein, the US special envoy to the
talks, has arrived in Cairo as well, a State Department spokesman said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview
on the BBC's HARDtalk programme, also spoke of a need for Hamas to decommission
its rocket arsenal.

"What we want to do is support the
Palestinians and their desire to improve their lives and to be able to open
crossings and get food in and reconstruct and have greater freedom," Kerry
said. "But that has to come with a greater responsibility towards Israel,
which means giving up rockets, moving into a different plane."

Kerry said, however, that all this would
"finally come together" as part of wider Israeli-Palestinian
peacemaking.

He has spearheaded such peace efforts but they
collapsed in April over Israeli opposition to a unity deal between Hamas and
the Fatah-led Palestine Liberation Organization and over Israel's reneging on a
pledge to free further Palestinian prisoners.

Netanyahu welcomed Kerry's remarks, calling them
"very important". He also told reporters in Jerusalem he saw a chance
for "important parties in the Middle East to be able to fashion a new
reality" he thought might yield a "sustainable peace or at least a
sustainable quiet that can lead to other things".

Netanyahu also saw a role for Abbas in a post-war
Gaza, answering when asked about it that "we have cooperated and are
cooperating with the Palestinian Authority" about the issue.

Hamas, a powerful rival to the Palestinian
Authority and in control of Gaza since 2007, has ruled out giving up its
weapons.

An Israeli official who declined to be identified
said Israel wanted humanitarian aid to flow to the Palestinian enclave's 1.8
million inhabitants as soon as possible.

But, the official said, the import of cement -
vital for reconstruction - would depend on achieving guarantees that it would
not be used by militants to construct more infiltration tunnels leading into
Israel and other fortifications.

Gaza officials say the war has killed 1,874
Palestinians, most of them civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three
civilians have been killed since fighting began on July 8, after a surge in
Palestinian rocket salvoes into Israel.

An Israeli opinion poll, conducted after the
ceasefire went into effect, said Israelis, while not regarding the Gaza war as
a victory for their country's powerful military, remained highly supportive of
Netanyahu.

According to Haaretz newspaper poll, 51 percent of
those surveyed said neither side won and 36 percent believe Israel emerged
victorious. Six percent said Hamas was the victor.

Of the 442 people who took part in the poll, 77
percent described the right-wing prime minister's performance during the war as
excellent or good.

Efforts to turn the ceasefire into a lasting truce
could prove difficult, with the sides far apart on their central demands, and
each rejecting the other's legitimacy. Hamas rejects Israel's existence and
vows to destroy it, while Israel denounces Hamas as a terrorist group and
eschews any contact.

Egypt has positioned itself as a mediator in
successive Gaza conflicts but, like Israel, its current administration views
Hamas as a security threat.

Besides the loss of life, the war has cost both
sides economically. Gaza faces a massive $6 billion price tag to rebuild
devastated infrastructure. Israel has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in
tourism and other sectors and fears cuts in overall economic growth this year
as well.

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