Hamas agrees to outlines of truce, but disagrees on details

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 14, 2009 

JERUSALEM — The militant Islamist group Hamas has agreed in principle to a cease-fire with Israel in the Gaza Strip, but the two sides remain at odds on major elements of the proposal, diplomats said on Wednesday.

Indirect cease-fire talks were set to begin in Cairo, Egypt, on Thursday — nearly three weeks after Israel launched a major air and ground assault to stop Hamas from launching rockets into southern Israel. The Palestinian death toll has topped 1,000, according to Gaza health officials.

Among the major sticking points is Hamas' demand that its forces help monitor the Egypt-Gaza border, an Arab diplomat said. Israel calls that unacceptable on the grounds that stopping Hamas from smuggling weapons across that border was one of the main reasons for its Gaza offensive.

Israel's private Channel 1 reported that Hamas also has offered a truce of up to one year, while Israeli leaders oppose what they'd consider to be a short-term deal. Still, top Israeli officials agreed late Wednesday to begin "serious negotiations" with Egypt, Channel 1 said.

After repeated postponements, Amos Gilad, the senior defense official who led Israel's original Gaza cease-fire talks, was expected in Cairo on Thursday to meet Egyptian mediators and hear Hamas's position. Israel and Hamas aren't negotiating directly.

The Arab diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said: "Yes, we are getting closer. We're down to the details. We're not negotiating about the principle of a cease-fire."

Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said the militant group was satisfied with the outcome of several days of talks led by Omar Suleiman, Egypt's intelligence chief, but refused to confirm they'd agreed to anything.

"Now it is the Egyptians' turn . . . to talk with the Israeli side to understand what is its position," Hamad said.

With the Israeli army positioned around — but not yet inside — the heart of Gaza City, Israeli leaders said they'd expand military operations unless Hamas ends its rocket attacks on southern Israel and Gaza militants are blocked from smuggling weapons through tunnels from Egypt.

Hamas has said it would halt its attacks when Israel re-opens its borders with Gaza and allows supplies to flow back into the isolated Mediterranean strip.

Egypt already has made some progress with Israel on the issue of the Egypt-Gaza border. Israeli officials said they've softened their demand that an international force patrol the Egyptian side, a proposal that Egypt has rejected.

"Our basic aim and objective . . . is to have a mechanism that ensures no smuggling into Gaza and the rearmament of Hamas," said Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington. "How that is decided upon is secondary."

With United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon due to arrive in Israel on Thursday, the diplomatic effort appeared to gain momentum on a day when nine Israeli human-rights groups called for a war-crimes investigation into what it called the Israeli military's "wanton use of lethal force" against Palestinian civilians and widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure.

More Palestinians have been killed in Israel's 19-day offensive in Hamas-controlled Gaza than in any single year this decade. Some 40 percent of the more than 1,000 dead are women and children, according to Palestinian medical officials.

More than 4,500 more people reportedly have been wounded as Israeli forces have taken aim at densely populated civilian areas that military officials say Hamas fighters use as cover. On the Israeli side, 13 people have died, 10 of them soldiers.

The Israeli campaign has forced tens of thousands of Gazans from their homes with nowhere for them to go, collapsed Gaza's health system and cut off huge sections of the territory from water, electricity and medical care, the nine human rights groups said.

In a joint statement, the groups — including the Israeli sections of Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights — said, "This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare and raises the suspicion, which we ask be investigated, of the commission of war crimes."

Israeli officials have said their forces don't intentionally target civilians and rejected allegations that they've violated international laws in the conflict.

The onslaught has fueled outrage throughout the Muslim world, and as the military struck another 50 targets throughout Gaza, a new recording purportedly by al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden called on Muslims to wage a holy war against Israel.

(Strobel reported from Washington. Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this article from Jerusalem and special correspondent Ahmed Abu Hamda contributed from Gaza City.)

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