By Mai Yaghi
Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) — Israel hauled its negotiators back from talks in Cairo and warplanes hit Gaza Tuesday after Palestinian rockets smashed into the south as the two sides were observing a 24-hour truce.
Nine days of relative quiet in the skies over Gaza came to an abrupt halt on Tuesday afternoon when three rockets struck southern Israel just hours before the truce was to expire at midnight local time.
Israel immediately ordered a military response, with warplanes striking targets across the battered Gaza Strip, although there were no immediate reports of casualties, Palestinian security sources and witnesses told AFP.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the rockets fired at Beersheva, which is home to around 200,000 Israelis.
An Israeli official confirmed the negotiating team had been ordered back from Cairo where Egypt has been pushing for a decisive end to the Gaza bloodshed, which has killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and 67 on the Israeli side.
“The Cairo process was based on the premise of a total ceasefire,” he told AFP.
“If Hamas fires rockets the Cairo process has no basis.”
Israel has repeatedly said it would not negotiate under fire and on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned there would be “a very strong response” should there be any resumption of fire.
Hamas dismissed his remarks as having “no weight.”
“Yet again, terrorists breach the ceasefire and renew fire at Israeli civilians from Hamas ruled Gaza Strip,” said army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, confirming attacks on targets across the coastal enclave.
“We cease, they fire.”
– ‘Sabotaging the talks’ –
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri denied the Islamist movement had fired rockets over the border, accusing Israel of trying to sabotage the truce talks.
“We don’t have any information about firing rockets from Gaza. The Israeli raids are intended to sabotage the negotiations in Cairo,” he told AFP.
The talks in Cairo center on an Egyptian proposal that meets some of the Palestinian demands, such as easing Israel’s eight-year blockade on Gaza, but defer debate on other thorny issues until later.
The aim is to broker a long-term arrangement to halt more than a month of bloody fighting, although both sides have largely silenced their guns since August 11 thanks to a series of temporary truces.
Talks at the headquarters of Egyptian intelligence resumed around 0800 GMT, a Palestinian official told AFP.
Although the back-to-back truce agreements have brought relief to millions on both sides of the border, the drawn-out waiting and the fear of a resumption of fighting was beginning to test people’s patience.
“No one here has any hope,” said Riyad Abul Sultan, a father of 10 with thick curly hair, smoking as he sat on a flimsy mattress at a UN school in Gaza.
“Maybe they’ll finish the war for two hours, maybe Israel will start bombing again.”
– Deadlock over ports –
The Palestinians say agreement over a long-term arrangement in Gaza has been delayed by Israeli foot-dragging over key issues such as a port and an airport.
“The negotiations failed on Monday evening because the Israelis refused to include a port or an airport in the agreement,” a Palestinian source close to the talks told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The Egyptians then added a clause allowing for the postponement of talks on this issue in order to avoid Israel raising the issue of (disarming Gaza from) rockets and missiles,” he said.
Israel has repeatedly demanded that Gaza be demilitarized although the subject is not overly mentioned in the Egyptian proposal as seen by AFP.
Islamic Jihad on Tuesday accused Israel of “intransigence” while Hamas’s Abu Zuhri said the Jewish state was “playing for time” at the talks.
Hamas had repeatedly warned it would not extend the temporary ceasefire again, pressing for immediate gains that would allow it to claim concessions from Israel after the devastating four-week war, which began on July 8.
– Hamas shift –
But a senior official within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) said the Islamist movement appeared to have changed its position following a meeting at the weekend between exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat.
“It looks like Hamas and Islamic Jihad will agree to the Egyptian paper,” he told AFP.
The Egyptian proposal calls for both sides to immediately cease fire, and includes provisions relating to opening the borders to allow for free movement of people, goods, and construction materials, as well as a clause on regulating the financial crisis within the enclave.
But crucially, it postpones discussions on the thorniest issues, such as a port and airport in Gaza, for another month “after calm and stability returns,” along with talks over exchanging the remains of two Israeli soldiers for the release of Palestinian prisoners.
AFP Photo/Said Khatib
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