Egyptian mediators worked feverishly Thursday to bridge gaps between Israel and Hamas in truce talks in Cairo as a 72-hour cease-fire in the Gaza Strip neared expiration.
With neither side able to point to conclusive military achievements after nearly a month of war, both appeared to be holding out for truce terms they could present as tangible gains from the fighting.
The armed wing of Hamas, the Qassam Brigades, urged Palestinian negotiators not to extend the cease-fire beyond its expiration at 8 a.m. Friday without agreement to the group’s demand to open a seaport in Gaza as part of moves to lift a blockade on the territory.
The Arabic Al Jazeera satellite channel cited a senior official in the armed wing as warning that it would renew rocket strikes on Israel after the cease-fire expired on Friday if there were no agreement to lift the blockade.
“Our fingers are on the trigger, and our rockets are trained on Tel Aviv,” Mushir al Masri, a Hamas official, told a rally in Gaza City.
Israeli officials warned of a harsh military response if Hamas resumed rocket firing. “They should not test us,” said Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a member of the Israeli security cabinet. “Any firing will be met with heavy fire.”
Egyptian officials met separately with Palestinian and Israeli delegations in an effort to extend the cease-fire and continue talks on a longer-term truce. But the mediation effort has run up against widely divergent demands from both sides.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Wednesday for moves to prevent the rearming of Hamas as a step toward demilitarization of Gaza that would rid it of rockets and prevent construction of attack tunnels dug across the border with Israel. Hamas says it will never give up its weapons.
Hamas is demanding the lifting of Israeli and Egyptian border closures imposed on the Gaza Strip, as well as building a seaport and airport to serve the coastal enclave. It also wants Israel to relax restrictions on fishing limits off the Gaza coast and permit access to areas of Gaza near the border with Israel that have been declared no-go zones.
Hamas is also demanding the release of former prisoners rearrested by Israel in June in a crackdown on the Islamist group in the West Bank after three Jewish teenagers were kidnapped there and killed. Israel blamed the attack on Hamas, though the group did not claim responsibility for it.
As talks continued Thursday in Cairo, Hamas officials accused Israel of failing to respond to their demands, made through a joint delegation of Palestinian factions that is meeting with Egyptian officials.
“The cease-fire will not be renewed, it cannot be renewed without real achievements,” Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas leader, told Al Jazeera.
“As we speak, no response has been received to Hamas’s demands, which means there is no breakthrough,” he said.
An Israeli official told McClatchy on Wednesday that Israel was ready to extend the temporary cease-fire and would be willing to ease border restrictions if rocket fire from the Gaza Strip was halted and there was “sustained quiet.”
The official, who under Israeli policy could not be quoted by name, called demands to open a port in Gaza premature and said talks should focus on terms of a cease-fire reached after a previous round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in 2012. Hamas says that commitments made then to ease border closures, relax fishing limit restrictions and allow access to areas near the border with Israel were not kept.
Egypt has indicated that it is not willing to open the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt to 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 efforts to mediate a long-term truce with Israel.
At the Gaza rally, al-Masri, the Hamas official, ruled out any discussion of demilitarizing the Gaza Strip.
“It is out of the question that the weapons of resistance should be on the negotiating table,” he said.