Cease-fire ends in Gaza and fighting resumes, but at slower pace

McClatchy Washington BureauAugust 8, 2014 

Mideast Israel Palestinians

Back dropped by the damaged minaret of the Al-Azba mosque, a Palestinian smokes a cigarette as he sits on damages of the Nada Towers at a residential neighborhood, in the town of Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. Israel and Hamas began observing a temporary cease-fire on Tuesday that sets the stage for talks in Egypt on a broader deal on the Gaza Strip, including a sustainable truce and the rebuilding of the battered, blockaded coastal territory. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

LEFTERIS PITARAKIS — AP

— Egypt urged Israel and Hamas to halt hostilities in the Gaza Strip after fighting resumed there on Friday as a 72-hour cease-fire expired without agreement on extending the lull.

Militants fired rockets at Israel, which responded with airstrikes, after indirect truce negotiations in Cairo mediated by Egypt reached a deadlock after night-long talks.

The return to hostilities appeared to be measured, however. Responsibility for the rocket fire was not claimed by Hamas but by other militant factions, and many of the Israeli strikes hit open areas, according to police in Gaza.

Five Palestinians were reported killed, and two Israelis were injured by a rocket strike.

Hamas had said earlier that it would not renew the temporary cease-fire unless it obtained agreement in principle to its demands to lift a blockade on the Gaza Strip and enable the opening of a seaport there.

Israel had informed Egypt that it was prepared to extend the cease-fire for an additional 72 hours, said an Israeli official who, under Israeli rules, cannot be identified.

But Hamas officials said Israeli negotiators rejected their terms for a broader truce. Those include lifting Israeli and Egyptian border closures imposed on the Gaza Strip, opening a seaport and airport, removing fishing limits off the Gaza coast, and allowing access to areas near Gaza’s border with Israel that have been declared no-go zones.

Hamas is also demanding the release of former prisoners re-arrested by Israel during a crackdown on the group in the West Bank in June after the kidnapping and killing there of three Israeli teenagers. Israel blamed the abduction on Hamas, though the group did not claim responsibility for the episode.

Egyptian officials, talking separately with a delegation of Palestinian factions and an Israeli team, had been working to extend the three-day cease-fire to allow further truce talks.

In a veiled criticism of Hamas, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that agreement had been reached on most issues and that “some limited points remained undecided . . . which should have led to agreement to renew the cease-fire.”

The statement called on both sides to “return immediately to the cease-fire commitment and seize the opportunity available to resume negotiations on the very limited (unresolved) points that remain, as soon as possible.”

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said that although Israel had rejected the group’s demands, “we did not close the door and will continue with the negotiations.”

However, Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said: “There will not be negotiations under fire.”

The Israeli army said that since the expiration of the cease-fire at 8 a.m. Friday, 57 rockets and mortar rounds had been fired at Israel, injuring two people. One rocket hit a house in the southern town of Sderot, and two were intercepted near the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, the military said.

The renewed Israeli strikes in Gaza killed a 10-year-old boy and wounded five others near a mosque in Gaza City, local health officials said, and three other people were reported killed near the town of Khan Yunis.

The army said it had targeted three “terror operatives” and struck 51 “terror sites” across the Gaza Strip, including concealed rocket launchers, military compounds and headquarters.

As rocket attacks on Israel resumed, the army’s civil defense branch reinstated a ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other areas within 50 miles of the Gaza Strip.

Should broader truce talks continue, a potentially major point of contention would be Israel’s demand that Hamas be prevented from re-arming as a step toward demilitarizing Gaza, ridding it of rockets and preventing construction of attack tunnels dug across the border with Israel. Hamas says it will never give up its weapons and that the subject is not up for discussion.

Egypt has indicated that it is not willing to open the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt to free movement of people and goods _ a key Hamas demand _ as long as the Gaza side of the terminal is controlled by the militant group. Instead, Egypt wants border control to be handed over to the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Egyptian government under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has been hostile to Hamas and its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a stance that has hampered its effort to mediate a long-term truce with Israel.

The renewed fighting in Gaza sparked fresh protests Friday in the West Bank, and a Palestinian was killed in a confrontation with Israeli forces near Ramallah, medical officials said. The army said that in the clash near the Israeli settlement of Psagot, dozens of Palestinians hurled stones at troops, and when they reached the settlement fence, soldiers used live ammunition to repel them.

In the city of Hebron, a stronghold of Hamas support, hundreds marched in support of Palestinians in Gaza, and dozens were reported injured in clashes with Israeli troops. The army said it used riot-control weapons and live ammunition to repel the protesters.

More than a dozen Palestinians have been shot and killed by Israeli troops in the West Bank since the start of the Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza on July 8. The fighting in Gaza has claimed the lives of more than 1,800 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to United Nations figures, along with 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians killed by rocket strikes in Israel.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: jgreenberg@mcclatchydc.com

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