Israel-Gaza conflict: Hamas warns of ‘last chance’ for ceasefire, so how long will the truce last?

With Israel and Hamas refusing to meet face-to-face at peace talks in Cairo, and trading demands and  warnings, Ben Lynfield reports on fragile hopes for a lasting ceasefire

Jerusalem

Israeli and Palestinian delegations resumed their indirect negotiations under Egyptian auspices aimed at forging a lasting ceasefire to end the month-old Gaza war. The talks came as a new 72-hour truce brought calm to the crowded coastal enclave and southern Israel.

There were warnings from both sides as the contacts between the bitter enemies, who are not meeting face-to-face, restarted, with Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri warning they are “the last chance” to reach a ceasefire. Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said the negotiations would need to make clear that Hamas has been defeated, a result that Israel fell short of achieving on the battlefield because of wariness of the cost of an all-out reoccupation of the Strip.

The opening positions of the two sides yesterday were mutually exclusive, with Israel demanding that Hamas be disarmed, something the Islamist group rejects out of hand. Hamas is demanding the lifting of border curbs that have crippled the Gaza economy and the opening of a seaport and airport to link the Strip to the outside world. Israel says curbs are necessary to prevent Hamas rearming or using raw materials for military purposes and Ms Livni yesterday ruled out a Gaza seaport for the foreseeable future, saying this would amount to a “prize to an organisation that uses terror against Israel”.

Hamas is also demanding that Israel release Hamas prisoners recently rearrested by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank, including those who were freed in a prisoner exchange two years ago and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The arrests were made as part of Israeli sweeps following the abduction of three Israeli teenagers near a West Bank settlement, an action used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a reason to crack down on Hamas in the West Bank, triggering Hamas rocket fire from Gaza that helped to set the stage for the war.

As the death toll stands at 1,938 Palestinian and 67 Israelis, the question is how ready the two sides are to reach a compromise.

Reuters reported from Gaza that residents were pinning hopes on this truce lasting, with shops beginning to open and traffic moving normally as some displaced families returned to the homes they had been forced to abandon. It quoted Abu Salama, a resident of the Shejaia neighbourhood of Gaza City, as saying of the new truce: “A truce, no truce. It’s becoming like Tom and Jerry. We want a solution.”

But Yitzhak Aharonovich, the Israeli public security minister from the hard right Yisrael Beiteinu party, told the Ynet news agency yesterday that, “chances of an agreement are low. From what I understand, after 72 hours we will go back to fire and then we will have to move to the next stage, that of gaining a decision [on the battlefield].”

However, analysts in Gaza and Israel took a more optimistic view of the chances of success of the Cairo negotiations. “I think they will reach an agreement,” said Talal Awkal, a columnist for Al-Ayyam newspaper. He predicted Hamas would drop its demands for a seaport and airport. But, he said, it would stick to its demands for lifting the border strictures. “It has paid too heavy a price from this aggression so it has to gain something and not be isolated like before,” he said. Mr Awkal also believes Hamas will insist on the prisoner releases. He said Israel would have to drop its demand to disarm Hamas.

Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, said: “There is a better than 50 per cent chance there will be an agreement, but not much better. A package can be put together that allows each side to say it achieved a good portion of its demands.”

One factor inclining Mr Netanyahu to compromise is that the public identifies with residents of border areas who faced rocket attacks upon returning to their homes last week after the army mistakenly told them it was safe. A ceasefire would enable Mr Netanyahu to restore quiet to these residents without a new military campaign in Gaza.

Dropping the demand that Hamas disarm would bring Mr Netanyahu into conflict within his own Likud party. Yuval Steinitz, the Strategic Affairs minister, said in a radio interview yesterday that Hamas would lose its weapons either through diplomacy or military force. “I certainly hope there will be a diplomatic solution. If not, I am convinced that sooner or later we’ll have to opt for a military solution of taking temporary control of Gaza to demilitarise it again.”

And the Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was also poised to pounce on the Prime Minister should he reach a compromise ceasefire. “It is forbidden to blink,” he said. “The steps that Israel agrees or refuses to take now after a month of fighting have enormous implications from the point of view of deterring Hamas,” he said.

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