Israel offers to extend Gaza cease-fire, but Hamas has yet to agree

An Israeli official said Wednesday that Israel was willing to extend a three-day cease-fire in the Gaza Strip past its scheduled 8 a.m. Friday expiration, but the offer was not immediately accepted by Hamas, lending an air of uncertainty to talks in Cairo intended to fashion a long-term truce.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said he hoped an extension of the 72-hour cease-fire would allow more time to find agreement on ways to end the nearly month-long conflict amid signs that Egyptian officials mediating indirect talks were struggling to overcome sharply conflicting demands.

Egypt’s intelligence chief, Mohammad Farid al Tohamy, held separate meetings in Cairo with Palestinian and Israeli delegations. The United States sent Frank Lowenstein, the acting special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, to Cairo to assist the discussions.

The United Nation’s special envoy to the Middle East, Robert Serry, was also on hand, as was Tony Blair, representative of the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators, which includes the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

But even as Israel said it was willing to extend the temporary cease-fire, Hamas officials denied Arab media reports that agreement had been reached to prolong the lull until Monday.

“Israel agreed to an unconditional cease-fire and is willing to continually extend it,” a senior Israeli official told McClatchy, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.

However, Mousa Abu Marzouk, the second-ranking political leader in Hamas, denied that any agreement had been reached on a cease-fire extension.

The armed wing of Hamas said it remained on standby for further orders, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We are prepared for any case in which this cease-fire is violated.”

Tohamy met Wednesday with the Palestinian team, composed of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions and headed by a representative of the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. A three-member Israeli team arrived later in Cairo for further talks.

A major sticking point appeared to be Israel’s demand to prevent the rearming of Hamas as a step toward demilitarizing the Gaza Strip by ridding it of rockets and heavy weapons stocked by militants.

Hamas officials have called any move against the group’s weapons a “red line” that was not up for discussion.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Shukri told a news conference that the issues at stake were “complicated and not easy,” and that talks were focusing on easing Israeli-imposed closures of Gaza’s borders to “meet the demands of the Palestinian people.”

The Palestinian delegation is demanding the removal of border closures imposed by Israel and Egypt that have throttled the economy of the Gaza Strip. The blockade was imposed after Hamas seized control of Gaza in a brief civil war in 2007.

Hamas has called for the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt for movement of people and goods, but the Egyptian government, which is hostile to the Islamist group and its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, has severely limited passage of Palestinians from Gaza.

At a news conference in Washington marking the end of a summit meeting of African leaders, President Barack Obama expressed sympathy for granting residents of Gaza great freedom of movement.

“Long term it has to be recognized that Gaza cannot sustain itself closed off from the world,” Obama said, adding, “I have no sympathy for Hamas, but I have great sympathy for ordinary people who are struggling.”

Still, easing Gaza’s isolation seemed an unlikely quick step.

Egypt has refused to open the Rafah crossing as long as Hamas, and not the Palestinian Authority, controls the Gaza side of the terminal. One proposal for reopening the crossing would provide for the stationing of Palestinian Authority forces there. Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel was “prepared to see a role for them” in future arrangements in Gaza.

But a statement from Egyptian intelligence suggested that Egypt was not prepared to be the only means for Gazans to move about or trade.

“Israel is the one that sealed the crossings from the Israeli side, and it doesn’t allow commodities and goods or individuals to cross, aiming at besieging the Strip and throwing the whole responsibility on Egypt,” the statement said.

Israel has allowed limited supplies into Gaza but has barred travel out of the territory except for some people receiving medical treatment in Israeli hospitals and small numbers of businessmen.

The Israeli official said border restrictions could be lifted if militants in Gaza halted rocket fire at Israel. “If you get quiet from Gaza, of course Israel is willing to ease the restrictions,” he said. “But the precondition is sustained quiet.”

Meanwhile, Netanyahu on Wednesday told foreign journalists he disagreed with assertions that Israel’s campaign, which has killed more than 1,800 Palestinians and wounded thousands more, had been a disproportionate response to Hamas’ rocket attacks, which killed three civilians inside Israel. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers died in the ground campaign inside Gaza.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised the issue Wednesday before the U.N. General Assembly when he said that the U.N. recognized Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas rockets but “the horror that was unleashed on the people of Gaza” during the Israeli military campaign raised serious questions about respect for international law and proportionality in attacks.

Netanyahu said that Hamas was responsible for the civilian casualties because it had attacked Israel from residential neighborhoods in Gaza, using Palestinian civilians as “human shields.” The Israeli response was a legitimate act of self-defense, he added.

“I think it was justified,” he said. “It think it was proportional.”

Lesley Clark in Washington contributed to this report.