JERUSALEM - The skies over Gaza remained calm Tuesday on the second day of a 72-hour truce as negotiators in Cairo prepared to tackle the thorny issue of the Israeli blockade.
As Gaza’s residents ventured out to try to piece together their battered lives, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were to sit down for a second day of indirect talks aimed at finding a durable end to the five-week confrontation.
But a senior Israeli official said there had been no progress so far, telling AFP there was still a long way to go to reach an agreement to end the conflict, which erupted on July 8 when Israel launched military operations to halt cross-border rocket fire from Gaza.
“The negotiations are difficult and gruelling,” a Palestinian official said of Monday’s talks, which lasted almost 10 hours and which were described as “serious.” But he said Tuesday’s meetings would be “the most important,” saying they would tackle core issues such as Israel’s eight-year blockade of Gaza, which the Palestinians want lifted.
Saudi Arabia told Israel on Tuesday that it must reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians if it is to survive as a nation, and criticised Muslims for being divided and failing to stop the Jewish state attacking its Arab neighbours.
“Israel has to realize that peace is the only solution for its survival,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world’s largest Muslim body, on the situation in the Gaza Strip.
“As we see, Israel does not shy away from taking its terror to any level, with total disregard to any laws, rules, religious edicts or humanitarian considerations to achieve its goals. “Its only objective is to uproot the Palestinian existence wherever it is,” Prince Saud told the meeting in Jeddah, attended by Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and ministers from the 56-member OIC.
Ahead of the talks, an Israeli official played down the chances of success. “The gaps are still very wide. There has not been progress in the negotiations,” he told AFP on Tuesday ahead of the return of the Israeli delegation to Cairo in the early afternoon. Talks were scheduled to last into the evening, a Palestinian official said. The two delegations gather in separate rooms at the headquarters of the Egyptian General Intelligence and never see each other, with mediators shuttling between them with proposals and counterproposals, a source said.
Hamas wants Israel to lift the blockade it imposed on Gaza in 2006 before it will stop rocket attacks. Israel has said it will only facilitate Gaza’s reconstruction if the enclave is fully disarmed. In northern Gaza, several families could be seen picking through the rubble of their badly-damaged homes not far from the Erez crossing. As residents of one apartment uncovered remains of a large missile, others outside brewed coffee on a fire made with paper and wood collected from the ruins. Some even brought breakfast, clearing a space to sit and eat among piles of rubble, broken furniture and twisted steel.
“Every day we come here, we sit a little and then we go,” said Mohamed Gama, who is staying with relatives due to the overcrowding in UN schools where hundreds of thousands have sought refuge from the fighting. Egypt, which brokered the three-day truce, has urged the warring sides to make every effort to reach “a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire”. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz warned that without a reasonable outcome to the talks, there could be another ground operation in Gaza.
Meanwhile, a coalition of activists said on Tuesday they would send a flotilla of ships to break Israel’s siege of Gaza by the end of 2014, fours years after a similar campaign ended in a deadly raid by Israeli commandos. “We plan to send the flotilla during 2014,” the Freedom Flotilla Coalition, which includes activists from at least 10 countries, said in Istanbul.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid told AFP he was pushing for an international conference on Gaza’s future that would involve regional players as well as Washington, the European Union and moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.
“We think that Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas should take control of Gaza and be active in its reconstruction,” the minister told AFP.
Palestinian negotiators have expressed willingness to see the PA assume responsibility for Gaza’s reconstruction and implement any deal signed in Cairo. Israel has no direct dealings with Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, Israel lashed out after the UN Human Rights Council named experts who would be involved in an inquiry into its Gaza offensive.
Canadian international lawyer William Schabas, who will head the commission, is widely regarded in Israel as being hostile to the Jewish state over reported calls to haul Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the International Criminal Court.
“This commission’s anti-Israeli conclusions have already been written, all it needs is a signature,” railed foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. Schabas denies being anti-Israel.