Spurred by yet another expiring Gaza Strip cease-fire, Israelis and Palestinians agreed late Monday on a 24-hour extension of their latest truce to work out an accord addressing major points of contention, including an easing of the blockade of the coastal territory, the warring parties and mediator Egypt said.
Word of the extension, initially disclosed in the Egyptian capital by Hamas official Izzat Rishq and confirmed by Egyptian and Israeli officials, came as the clock ticked down on the latest cessation of hostilities. Throughout the day Monday, Egypt had prodded Israel and the Palestinians to take steps to avert a new outbreak of fighting.
Under the broad outlines of the emerging plan for a permanent cease-fire, the two sides agreed in principle on talks beginning within a month on the construction of a Gaza seaport, the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera reported – a much-coveted provision for Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.
The channel also said the government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would oversee the reconstruction of battered Gaza, with international monitoring of construction materials allowed into the enclave. That was a key point of dispute because Hamas has been using cement and other supplies to build an elaborate network of infiltration tunnels for attacking Israel. Other provisions reportedly referred to an expansion of the fishing zone off Gaza, eventually reaching 12 miles offshore.
The latest truce, which was to expire Monday at midnight, was the longest so far, lasting five days. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had expressed willingness to extend the truce as long as calm held.
Israel sharply warned Hamas against any resumption of rocket fire, saying such a move would draw a forceful response. Smaller factions including the militant group Islamic Jihad had threatened earlier to resume fighting despite the 24-hour extension, as has happened previously, but appeared initially prepared to hold their fire.
Before the new respite was agreed upon, Hamas had appeared to find itself at odds not only with Israel but also with other Palestinian factions in the delegation to the Cairo talks. It had taken a harder line than the Abbas government on several points, including how and when the Egyptian and Israeli blockade of Gaza would be eased.
A month of fighting between the two sides, which tapered off with a series of cease-fires and the withdrawal of Israeli ground forces this month, killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, most of them believed to be civilians, and 67 on the Israeli side, all but three of them soldiers.
When an earlier truce expired last week, there was argument almost up to the moment of the deadline. And even as the extension was announced, there was a brief flareup of fighting, with rockets fired from Gaza and retaliatory airstrikes by Israel. Hamas, which has allied fighters it says it does not directly control, denied its forces had fired the rockets.
Hamas came under pressure over the weekend to moderate its position in talks between Saeb Erekat, representing Abbas, and Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile in Qatar and heads Hamas' political bureau. Israel's Haaretz newspaper said Abbas' government is trying to get Hamas to accept an Egyptian-authored formula even if it falls short of Hamas' demands.
But after the extreme scope of death and devastation in Gaza, Hamas wants to produce landmark results, such as a commitment to the reopening of Gaza's seaport and airport. Israel insists that stringent security provisions would have to be in place to prevent Hamas from exploiting an easing of the blockade to rearm.
Delays in reaching an accord have been holding up full-scale efforts to start reconstruction of Gaza, where the infrastructure has been battered and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. Norway announced that its government and Egypt would co-host a donor conference to kick off what is likely to be a massive and lengthy rebuilding effort.
As the deadline neared, Monday brought a reminder of the events that helped touch off the Gaza conflict. The Israeli military said troops had demolished the West Bank homes of two suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens, and blocked off a third residence. After the teens' bodies were found, Netanyahu blamed Hamas and authorized a wave of arrests of Hamas suspects in the West Bank.
Times staff writer King reported from Cairo and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem. Special correspondents Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, and Amro Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.