US-led Gaza truce efforts focus on humanitarian lull, talks
A cloud of smoke billows over Gaza after an Israel Forces strike - AP/File

CAIRO: US-led efforts to end the conflict between Israel and Hamas are focused on a week-long humanitarian ceasefire, during which intensive negotiations will tackle the blockade of Gaza and other disputes, officials said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, UN chief Ban Ki-moon and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond were in Cairo on Thursday to push forward the plan, Arab and Western diplomats said.

“We still have more work to do. I certainly have some work to do tonight,” Kerry said as he started a late-night meeting with Ban, their third this week as both men shuttle the region.

The humanitarian ceasefire would allow Hamas, the militant rulers of Gaza, to save face after having rejected an Egyptian initiative last week that proposed a lasting truce first and negotiations later.

According to Western and Palestinian officials, once a humanitarian lull takes hold, delegations from Israel and Hamas would arrive in Cairo — which has mediated past conflicts between the two — for indirect talks that could lead to a durable truce.

“The way it’s going is there will be a humanitarian truce declared for seven days, and then everyone comes to Cairo for the talks,” said an official with president Mahmud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.

The death toll in the more than two weeks of conflict climbed to 800 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and 32 Israeli soldiers on Thursday. Hamas rocket attacks have killed two Israel civilians and a Thai migrant worker.

Abbas, who signed a unity deal with Hamas in April ending a seven-year rift, has backed Hamas’s demands for an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip and the release of some Palestinian prisoners.

Israel blockaded Gaza, a small coastal enclave flanked by Egypt and Israel, in 2006 after militants kidnapped one of its troops.

A senior Hamas official said it would accept public guarantees from international powers that Israel’s eight-year blockade of Gaza will end.

Easing the blockade on border crossings would require the presence of representatives of the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank-based leadership that has signed a peace plan with Israel, officials said.

“The (PA representatives) will be there,” said the Palestinian official.

-‘Serious negotiations’-

A Western diplomat said Washington and Britain had not offered “guarantees” to Hamas, which the United States and Israel have designated as a terrorist group.

“But if you do this humanitarian pause, there will be serious negotiations,” the diplomat said of the offer to Hamas, made through intermediaries.

Hamas officials would not immediately comment on the proposal, as Kerry, hunkered down in a Cairo hotel, kept up his phone calls to push forward a deal.

Kerry placed multiple calls to officials in Qatar, where Hamas’s leader is based, and Turkey for help in persuading the militants to accept a ceasefire, a State Department official said.

“The pieces are not all in place yet,” said another Western diplomat. “The Israelis don’t want any conditions, and Hamas feels they need conditions given their past experience.”

The officials all requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

An Egyptian official confirmed that diplomatic efforts have shifted to a humanitarian truce. Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment.

Egypt under Islamist president Mohamed Morsi had brokered a ceasefire in 2012 that promised an easing of the blockade. Hamas says Israel loosened only a few restrictions on the border crossings.

After Morsi’s overthrow last year, his successor President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has sought to isolate Hamas, which his government accused of backing militants in the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt shares a border with both Israel and Gaza, controlling the only crossing that bypasses Israel.

The negotiations would delve into reopening that passage by possibly reviving a 2005 agreement that requires the presence of Palestinian Authority representatives and European Union monitors, Palestinian officials said.

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