GAZA/CAIRO - Israel and the Palestinians agreed on Sunday to an Egyptian proposal for a new 72-hour ceasefire in Gaza starting at 2100 GMT, officials from the warring sides said.
“Israel has accepted Egypt’s proposal,” a senior Israeli government official said, adding Israeli negotiators would return to Cairo on Monday to resume indirect talks with the Palestinians if the truce held.
The Israeli team had flown home on Friday before a previous three-day truce expired and hostilities in the month-old conflict broke out again.
A Hamas official said Palestinian factions had accepted Egypt’s call and that the Cairo talks would continue.
In a statement, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry urged “both sides to exploit this truce to resume indirect negotiations immediately and work towards a comprehensive and lasting ceasefire agreement”.
Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “Israel will not negotiate under fire” and warned of a protracted Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip if rocket salvoes continued.
Hamas has demanded an end to Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the coastal territory and the opening of a Gaza seaport - a project Israel says should be dealt with only in any future talks on a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians.
Israeli air strikes and shelling on Sunday killed five Palestinians in Gaza, including a boy of 14 and a woman, medics said, in a third day of renewed fighting.
Since the previous ceasefire expired, Palestinian rocket and mortar salvoes have focused on Israeli kibbutzim, or collective farms, just across the border in what appeared to be a strategy of sapping the Jewish state’s morale without triggering another ground invasion of the tiny Gaza Strip.
A month of war has killed 1,895 Palestinians and 67 Israelis while devastating wide tracts of densely-populated Gaza. But international pressure for a ceasefire has been weaker than in earlier rounds of Israeli-Palestinian conflict given other international security crises, notably in Iraq and Ukraine, distracting major powers.
However, the violence over the past three days has been less intense than at the war’s outset, with reduced firing on both sides. Israel withdrew ground forces from Gaza on Tuesday.
Before the truce ran out, Israel said it was ready to agree to an extension. Hamas did not agree, calling for an end to the economically stifling blockade of the enclave that both Israel and Egypt, which regards the Islamist movement as a security threat, have imposed.
Israel has resisted easing access to Gaza, suspecting Hamas could then restock with weapons from abroad.
A sticking point has been Israel’s demand for guarantees that Hamas would not use any reconstruction supplies sent to Gaza to build more tunnels of the sort that Palestinian fighters have used to infiltrate the Jewish state.
Egypt is meeting separately with each party, given that Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist and Israel regards the group as a terrorist organisation.
Gaza hospital officials say the Palestinian death toll has been mainly civilian since the July 8 launch of Israel’s military campaign to quell Gaza rocket fire.
Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians to the war, where losses of non-combatants in Gaza and the destruction of thousands of homes have drawn international condemnation.
Israeli tanks and infantry left the enclave on Tuesday after the army said it had completed its main mission of destroying more than 30 tunnels dug by militants for cross-border attacks.
In renewed fighting since the end of a three-day truce on Friday, Israel has killed 16 Palestinians in air strikes. Militants have fired more than 100 projectiles, mostly short-range rockets and mortar bombs, at Israel.
Though Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor does not work at such short ranges - a version called “Iron Beam” is being developed to shoot down mortars - there have been few casualties, largely because as many as 80 percent of the border kibbutzim’s 5,000 residents fled before last week’s ceasefire.
Some said on Sunday they would not return to their communities, which have long been symbols of Israel’s pioneering spirit - an abandonment likely to raise pressure on Netanyahu.
Talking to Guardian, Hamas’s lead negotiator said the Palestinians may abandon the Cairo-based negotiations if Israel does not take them more seriously and says that the Islamist group may continue its war of attrition if its demands are not met.
Israel said it would not return to the talks as long as Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border rocket and mortar fire. Moussa Abu Marzouk, said the Palestinian delegation would decide on Sunday whether or not to leave Cairo - where they have negotiated indirectly with their Israeli counterparts for a week.
“There will be a meeting in order to decide if we are going to continue the talks or not - because there is no seriousness from the Israeli side about the talks,” Marzouk said late on Saturday night, in the hotel where negotiations have centred. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said on Sunday: Israel will not negotiate under fire. At no stage did we declare Israel’s military offensive was over. The operation will continue until its objective - the restoration of quiet over a protracted period - is achieved.
“I said at the beginning and throughout the operation - it will take time and stamina is required.” Israeli air strikes and shelling killed three Palestinians in Gaza on Sunday, including a boy of 14 and a woman, medics said, in a third day of renewed fighting that has jeopardised international efforts to end the conflict. Hamas has complained that throughout negotiations - conducted via Egyptian intermediaries - the Israelis had never formally responded to any Palestinian demands, which centre on ending an eight-year blockade of the Gaza strip. Marzouk also claimed that the Israeli delegation had made no attempt to negotiate since the end of a temporary ceasefire on Friday morning, when the Israeli team flew back to Jerusalem to observe the Jewish sabbath, and did not return.
“They don’t talk about peace or ceasefire during their religious ceremonies,” said Marzouk. “But they can kill and destroy as they did in Gaza on Saturday. It’s open season for killing.” Marzouk said Hamas had not made a final decision about escalating its own attacks on Israel, should the talks fail - but claimed that “all the options are available to the Palestinian people in order to them to gain their rights”. He said: “If we don’t have justice and rights, we will keep resisting our enemies until we get them…If they don’t give us our rights today, we will continue the battle.”
Marzouk said the concession Hamas most wanted from Israel was the right to build a port and airport in Gaza, facilities promised to the Palestinians under the Oslo peace deal. In return, he said Hamas had no problem with relinquishing power to a Palestinian Authority-led unity government that “should control everything in Gaza”, including its border crossings. But he said Hamas would not agree to disarm while the Gaza strip was still occupied. “Disarming is out of the question. There is no discussion. It’s not on the negotiation table. There is no force that can take away from the Palestinian resistance their right to resistance, nor their tools to resist.”
Marzouk also denied that Hamas should down its arms in order to protect innocent lives in Gaza, saying that it was Israel’s responsibility to stop bombing civilians. He also denied that Hamas fighters endanger civilians by firing rockets from civilian areas. “I cannot understand how [Hamas’s critics] always blame the weak, the party that gets attacked. Who started the battle? … Did Israel really have to kill all this number in order to get their targets? To demolish all these houses in order to achieve their goals? The ones who should be blamed are the Israelis.”
Marzouk said it was hard for Hamas fighters to avoid civilian areas in such a densely populated tract of land as Gaza, and argued that Israel had the sophisticated military equipment necessary to avoid killing any civilians. “Why do they keep killing all these civilians even though they have these [accurate] weapons? They don’t miss the target even by a few centimetres … The fact is unquestionable. They kill for the sake of killing.”