CAIRO (AP) — Egypt late Monday announced a 24-hour extension in talks between Israel and the Hamas militant group aimed at salvaging a long-term arrangement that would allow reconstruction of the Gaza Strip following a monthlong war that killed more than 2,000 people.
The announcement came just minutes before a temporary truce was set to expire at midnight, averting a resumption of the fighting that has caused devastating damage across Gaza and disrupted life throughout southern Israel.
"Palestinians and Israelis agreed on extending the cease-fire by 24 hours to continue current negotiations," the Egyptian government said in a statement. Palestinian and Israeli officials confirmed they had accepted Egypt's request for an extension.
A Palestinian negotiator said the sides had exchanged draft proposals for a long-term truce that were to be addressed during the 24-hour extension in talks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
Since last week, Egypt has been hosting indirect talks between Israel and Hamas aimed at ending the war.
Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said Monday the death toll from the fighting had jumped to over 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, while U.N. officials, who often take more time to verify figures, put the number at 1,976. Thousands of homes were destroyed, and tens of thousands of people remain huddled in U.N. shelters. Israel lost 67 people, all but three of them soldiers.
Egyptian mediators shuttled between the sides Monday, but gaps appeared to remain wide. Hamas is demanding an end to a seven-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that has devastated the local economy. Israel wants guarantees that Hamas, which fired thousands of rockets into Israel during the fighting, will be disarmed.
In an apparent attempt to pressure Hamas, Egypt said early Monday it would co-host an international fundraising conference for Gaza, but only if a deal is reached. Israel, meanwhile, said in recent months it had arrested nearly 100 Hamas operatives in the West Bank in an alleged plot to topple Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Gaza blockade, imposed after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, remains the main stumbling block. It has greatly limited the movement of Palestinians in and out of the territory of 1.8 million people, restricted the flow of goods into Gaza and blocked virtually all exports.
Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent arms smuggling, but critics say the measures have amounted to collective punishment. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already said this week he would not allow Hamas to win a diplomatic victory at the negotiating table.
An Egyptian compromise proposal has called for an easing of the blockade to allow more movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza. Although it would not disarm Hamas, it would give Abbas, whose forces were routed by Hamas in the 2007 takeover, a foothold back in Gaza and put him in charge of border crossings and internationally backed reconstruction efforts. Larger issues, including Israel's calls for disarmament and Hamas demands to reopen Gaza's sea and airports, would be left for later talks.
An official in Abbas' office said the Palestinian leader was supposed to arrive in Qatar, the base for top Hamas leaders, on Tuesday and stay until Friday.
During his stay, he is to hold meetings Tuesday with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and the emir of Qatar. The official said Abbas would urge Mashaal and the Qataris to support the Egyptian cease-fire efforts. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media about internal deliberations.
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