Palestinian officials voiced cautious optimism Thursday, hinting at progress in Egyptian-mediated negotiations with Israel to bring an end to the fighting in Gaza and secure new arrangements for the war-battered territory.
But with the sides’ demands still seemingly irreconcilable, that optimism may be premature and a deal not so close in the making.
Israel and Hamas are observing a five-day ceasefire that began at midnight Wednesday, in an attempt to allow talks between the sides in Cairo to continue. The negotiations are meant to secure a substantive end to the month-long war and draw up a road map for the coastal territory, which has been hard-hit in the fighting.
Israeli officials have largely kept quiet about the negotiations. But militant groups represented in Cairo said progress was being made toward a deal – a stark turnaround from earlier posturing.
“The war is now behind us, and the chances for an agreement on a lasting ceasefire are encouraging,” Ziad al-Nakhaleh, deputy leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group, told the Associated Press. “Though we didn’t get all that we wanted, there was progress here and there.”
Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev would not comment Thursday on the Cairo talks.
Beyond demands for a seaport and airport, Hamas is also seeking an end to a crippling blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007, when Hamas seized control of the coastal strip. The blockade has greatly limited the movement of Palestinians in and out of the territory of 1.8 million people. It has also restricted the flow of goods into Gaza and blocked virtually all exports.
Israel says the border closing is necessary to prevent arms smuggling, and officials are reluctant to make any concessions that would allow Hamas to declare victory.
Israel, meanwhile, is demanding that Hamas be disarmed, or at the very least, be prevented from re-arming, a term that is a virtual non-starter for the militant group.
The sides are studying an Egyptian proposal that calls for easing parts of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, bringing some relief to the territory.
But the proposal leaves the key areas of disagreement, including Hamas’s demand for a full lifting of the blockade and Israeli calls for Hamas to disarm, to later negotiations.
Senior Hamas negotiator Khalil al-Haya old reporters in Cairo that Hamas would seek international guarantees to enforce any agreements reached with Israel.
Early Thursday afternoon, Hamas negotiators flew from Cairo to Doha for consultations with Hamas leaders in Qatar.
It was the first time that Hamas figures were allowed to fly directly from the Cairo airport since a military-backed government took over in Egypt last year, replacing an Islamist president whose Muslim Brotherhood group was closely allied with Hamas. That appeared to reflect recognition on Egypt’s part of Qatar’s importance in the talks.
Egypt has positioned itself as the key mediator, but its tough anti-Hamas policies could limit its effectiveness.
The tiny Gulf Arab nation of Qatar is seen as a conduit for Hamas demands. It hosts several senior Hamas leaders and has staunchly opposed the Egypt-Israel blockade of the Palestinian coastal strip.