CAIRO – Indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over extending a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and ending a blockade of the battered territory got underway Wednesday in Cairo, with both sides taking hard-line positions and much jockeying expected ahead.
Israel wants the Islamic militant Hamas to disarm, or at least ensure it cannot re-arm, before considering the group’s demand that the territory’s borders be opened. Israel and Egypt imposed a closure after the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, although Egypt allows individuals to cross intermittently.
“The two sides have reviewed what they consider issues of concern,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri said at a news conference, describing the matter as “complicated and not easy.”
Hazem Abu Shanab, a member of Fatah, one of the main factions involved in the talks, said disarmament would require Israel to pull out from occupied Palestinian territory.
“As long as there is occupation, there will be resistance and there will be weapons,” he said. “The armament is linked to the occupation.”
Egyptian mediators have been shuttling between the delegations. An Egyptian airport official said the Israelis were back in Cairo on Wednesday evening after flying out earlier in the day. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Israel’s intense bombardment of Gaza, saying that despite the high civilian death toll it was a “justified” and “proportionate” response to Hamas attacks.
Speaking to international journalists, Netanyahu presented video footage he said showed militants firing rockets from areas near schools and Hamas deploying civilians as human shields.
“Our enemy is Hamas, our enemies are the other terrorist organizations trying to kill our people and we have taken extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties,” he said.
Nearly 1,900 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting, three-quarters of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Israel said some 900 Palestinian militants were among the dead. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and three civilians inside Israel have also been killed.
The Palestinian delegation in Cairo is composed of negotiators from all major factions, including Hamas, and is meeting with Egypt’s intelligence chief for briefings on Israel’s demands.
“The most important thing to us is removing the blockade and starting to reconstruct Gaza,” said Bassam Salhi, a Palestinian delegate. “There can be no deal without that.”
Shukri said he hoped the cease-fire, set to expire at 8 a.m. Friday, would be extended, and an Egyptian security official said Cairo was pressing Israel for an extension.
There has been no official Israeli response, though an official at Netanyahu’s office said Israel has “no problem” with “unconditional extensions of the cease-fire.” He, like the Egyptian security official, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.