GAZA/CAIRO/London - A Gaza truce was holding on Wednesday as Egyptian mediators pursued talks with Israeli and Palestinian representatives on an enduring end to a war that has devastated the Hamas - dominated enclave.
Egypt’s intelligence chief met a Palestinian delegation in Cairo, the state news agency MENA said, a day after he conferred with Israeli representatives. The Palestinian team, led by an official from Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, includes envoys from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.
“The indirect talks between the Palestinians and Israelis are moving forward,” one Egyptian official said, making clear that the opposing sides were not meeting face to face. “It is still too early to talk about outcomes but we are optimistic.”
The United Nations is ready to help rebuild Gaza but for the last time, UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned Wednesday. Ban opened a special meeting of the United Nations General Assembly with an appeal for a lasting peace as a 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas was holding for a second day.
“The senseless cycle of suffering in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as in Israel must end,” he told the 193-nation assembly. After three wars in Gaza in six years, the UN secretary general warned that the world’s patience with the Israelis and the Palestinians was being tested. “Do we have to continue like this - build, destroy, and build and destroy?” Ban asked. “We will build again but this must be the last time - to rebuild. This must stop now.”
Egyptian and Palestinian sources said they expected later on Wednesday an initial response by Israel to Palestinian demands, which it has so far shown no sign of accepting. Israel withdrew ground forces from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday morning and started a 72-hour Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas as a first step towards a long-term deal.
In Gaza, where some half-million people have been displaced by a month of bloodshed, some residents left UN shelters to trek back to neighbourhoods where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling and the smell of decomposing bodies fills the air.
Streets in towns in southern Israel, which had been under daily rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, were filled again with playing children. The military said that a rocket-warning siren that sounded in the south in the afternoon was a false alarm.
Palestinians want an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on impoverished Gaza and the release of prisoners, including those Israel arrested in a June crackdown in the occupied West Bank after three Jewish seminary students were kidnapped and killed.
Israel has resisted those demands. “For Israel the most important issue is the issue of demilitarisation. We must prevent Hamas from rearming, we must demilitarise the Gaza Strip,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Reuters television.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview on the BBC’s HARDtalk programme, also spoke of a need for Hamas to decommission its rocket arsenal.
“What we want to do is support the Palestinians and their desire to improve their lives and to be able to open crossings and get food in and reconstruct and have greater freedom,” Kerry said.
“But that has to come with a greater responsibility towards Israel, which means giving up rockets, moving into a different plane,” he said.
Meanwhile, a British parliamentary committee said on Wednesday that excessive Israeli restrictions on Palestinian territories cannot be justified on the grounds they protect the Jewish state.
“We challenge the assertion that restrictions which curtail economic development in the OPTs [Occupied Palestinian Territories] are based on Israel’s security needs and can be justified on security grounds,” the report by the International Development Committee said.
The paper expressed particular concern about the situation in Hebron, the Palestinian city in the southern West Bank.
“We were shocked by what we saw during our visit to Hebron. While we fully appreciate Israel’s security concerns, these in no way justify the present restrictions on Palestinians in Hebron, which affect their livelihoods, economic development and security,” the report said.
The group, which monitors the British government’s ministry of international development, called for London and Europe to speak out against restrictions that prevent economic development “as a matter of urgency”.
The call comes a day after Baroness Sayeeda Warsi resigned as a government minister in protest at what she said was a “morally indefensible” failure by the government to condemn Israel’s killing of civilians in Gaza.