EREZ, Israel — Israeli and Palestinian negotiators appeared Monday to be homing in on an agreement on a cease-fire that would end Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, which have killed 101 Palestinians in the past six days, and head off what analysts had expected would be a far bloodier incursion by Israeli ground forces.
Israeli leaders were meeting late into the night to decide their next move, but Israeli soldiers in Erez said they had received orders to stand down from the high alert that had them poised Sunday to storm across the border. Soldiers in Erez, near the main Gaza crossing point, appeared noticeably more relaxed as they took smoking breaks and called family to say they hoped they would be home by the weekend.
Palestinian negotiators agreed that progress had been made in talks in Cairo, where Egyptian officials were shuttling between the two sides, whose representatives, according to those familiar with the talks, refused to meet one another face to face.
Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the coastal strip, told a news conference in Cairo that the Hamas-led government would resist any Israeli invasion and that the Israeli bombing campaign had not seriously damaged Palestinian morale or infrastructure. But between statements of defiance, he also said his side was open to a cease-fire agreement – if it included a lifting of Israel’s blockade, which has left Gaza residents unable to travel freely outside the strip and severely limited their ability to import badly needed equipment and materials.
“We are not against calm,” Meshaal said. “But there must be specific demands . . . that the Israeli thuggery and aggression stop . . . and the siege on Gaza be lifted.”
Israeli officials said any agreement would have to include a commitment from Hamas to a long-term cessation of rocket fire into Israel from both Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
“This has to be a long-term quiet, not just a couple weeks,” said Josh Hantman, a spokesman for Israel’s Defense Ministry. He said that Israeli officials wanted a cease-fire that lasted “years, not days or weeks.” Palestinian officials agreed that they were seeking a long-term deal, though they said that neither side had introduced a timeframe so far.
A senior official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said that a deal could be reached in a matter of “days or hours,” though he said the talks were moving “very slowly, very carefully.”
“We have been burned by these talks in the past and there is a lack of trust on both sides,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the talks.
Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil was optimistic, if cautious, in an interview with the Reuters news agency.
“I hope we will reach something soon that will stop this violence and counter-violence," he was quoted as saying. "I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of negotiation (means) it is very difficult to predict."
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, White House officials said that President Barack Obama, who is in Cambodia for a summit meeting with Asian leaders, had spoken with both Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, expressing regret for the loss of life on both sides but making a point with Morsi, a longtime supporter of Hamas, that Hamas must end rocket fire into Israel.
But the U.S. appeared to have taken a backseat role in the cease-fire talks, leaving the details to Egypt, which has relations with both sides – unlike the United States, which has branded Hamas a terrorist organization.
Indeed, protecting their relationship with Egypt is the one thing that unites both Hamas and Israel, said one Western diplomat who is monitoring the talks; he asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations.
The diplomat noted that Israel is anxious to preserve its three-decade-long peace treaty with Egypt, something that a Gaza invasion might threaten, while Hamas has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization of which Morsi was a longtime official before assuming the presidency.
“Egypt is the only game in town when it comes to this thing. There is no substitute for Egypt’s role,” the Western diplomat said. “Both sides want to protect their relationship.”
In spite of the talks, Monday was another day of blows and counterblows, though the battle appeared largely one-sided. At least 24 Palestinians died in Israeli bombing raids, including Ramez Harb, the media director for the Saraya El Quds armed wing of Islamic Jihad, who died in an airstrike on the main media center in Gaza City, which houses both international and Palestinian journalists.
Gaza militants fired more than 100 rockets into Israel on Monday, but Israeli officials reported no casualties and said that all had landed in open areas or had been intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome anti-missile system.
Palestinian medics said the death toll in Gaza had reached 101 over six days of bombing; 24 of those were children.
Any cease-fire that exchanged an end to rocket attacks on Israel for an easing of the Israeli blockade of Gaza would be a historic agreement. Unlike their Palestinian rivals, Fatah, the political party that rules the West Bank, Hamas has never recognized Israel’s right to exist or embraced a two-state solution for the six-decade standoff with Israel. Israel, for its part, has branded Hamas a terrorist organization and has refused to recognize its role in any Palestinian government, despite elections that gave Hamas control of Gaza.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that Israel could still move forward with a ground invasion of Gaza, though military analysts said the option was “less realistic and far less likely” Monday evening then it had been 24 hours earlier – an observation Israeli soldiers in Erez echoed.
“We were told that we were moving in, and then just as it was supposed to happen it was suddenly called off,” said one infantryman, who said his unit had already begun to move on Sunday. “Our state of preparedness to move in is certainly lower today.”
A senior Israeli defense official told McClatchy that as long as cease-fire talks moved in a positive direction, a ground invasion was unlikely.
“The ground op was the last resort when we thought that there would be no move toward a solution,” said the official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. “But from the military point of view, the ground op was always going to be tricky and best avoided.”
He said that Israel was more likely to lose soldiers, as well as hit civilian areas of Gaza, if a ground operation were ordered.
Such a move also appeared to be unpopular with average Israelis. A poll published Monday by the Haaretz newspaper showed that while 84 percent of Israelis supported the air and naval assault on Gaza, only 30 percent supported a ground invasion.
McClatchy special correspondent Frenkel reported from Erez; Youssef reported from Cairo. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef, @sheeraf