National News

Gaza truce extension fans hope of Cairo talks deal

By Mohammed Daraghmeh, The Associated Press

CAIRO - A five-day extension of a Gaza truce appeared to be holding despite a rocky start on Thursday, fanning cautious optimism of progress in the indirect negotiations underway in Cairo between Israel and major Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

It's the longest cease-fire yet since the war broke out last month in the Gaza Strip. The fighting has so far killed more than 1,900 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, according to Palestinian and U.N. officials. Israel has lost 67 people, all but three of them soldiers.

Violence briefly spiked as the extension of a previous, 72-hour truce was announced shortly before midnight on Wednesday. The extension is to last until midnight on Monday.

Israel's military said eight Hamas rockets were launched at Israel but that the firing stopped in the early hours of Thursday morning. Israel retaliated with airstrikes on rockets and rocket-launching sites in Gaza, the military said.

Gaza police said it recorded 17 Israeli strikes but that no casualties were reported.

Palestinian negotiators in Cairo expressed optimism that a deal to create a sustainable roadmap for the war-torn territory could soon be achieved.

"There is a real opportunity to reach an agreement, but (Israel) must stop the manoeuvrs and playing with words," said senior Hamas negotiator Khalil al-Haya.

"We are not interested in more destruction for our people. We are not interested in more bloodshed," he added.

Hamas is seeking an end to a crippling blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt in 2007. The blockade has greatly limited the movement of Palestinians in and out of the territory of 1.8 million people. It has also restricted the flow of goods into Gaza and blocked virtually all exports.

Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent arms smuggling, and officials are reluctant to make any concessions that would allow Hamas to declare victory.

Israel wants Hamas to disarm, or at least be prevented from re-arming. Hamas has recovered from previous rounds of violence with Israel, including a major three-week ground operation in January 2009 and another weeklong air offensive in 2012. It now controls an arsenal of several thousands of rockets, some with long ranges and relatively heavy payloads.

Al-Haya, the Hamas negotiator, told reporters in Cairo that Hamas would seek international guarantees to enforce any agreements reached with Israel. He said that together with the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank and with which Hamas formed a unity government earlier this year, the militant group would expect to play an important role in any Gaza reconstruction program.

The "national unity government is required to carry out its duty with regard to reconstruction," he said.

Early Thursday afternoon, Hamas negotiators left from Cairo airport and flew for consultations with Hamas leaders in the Qatari capital of Doha.

It was the first time that Hamas figures were allowed to fly directly from the Cairo airport since a military-backed government took over in Egypt last year, replacing an Islamist president whose Muslim Brotherhood group was closely allied with Hamas. That appeared to reflect a recognition on Egypt's part of Qatar's importance in the talks.

Egypt has positioned itself as the key mediator in the talks, but its tough anti-Hamas policies could limit its effectiveness. The tiny Gulf Arab nation of Qatar is seen as a conduit for Hamas demands. It hosts several senior Hamas leaders and has staunchly opposed the Egypt-Israel blockade of the Palestinian coastal strip.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev would not comment Thursday on the progress of the Cairo talks.

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