Israel and Hamas pound each other, but talks continue

<i>This post has been updated. See the note below for details.</i>

GAZA CITY – As tenuous cease-fire talks in Cairo continued, Israel and the Islamist group Hamas pounded one another Monday in the sixth day of clashes that have killed more than 100 Palestinians and three Israelis.

Chances for a truce were unclear given the ongoing hostilities, but negotiators for both sides remained in Egypt as the details of what is said to be a multiphase, multiyear cease-fire agreement are hammered out.

Israelis officials are seeking assurance from Egypt that Hamas will halt rocket fire into their nation and not be allowed to rebuild the weapon caches that the Israeli military has destroyed in recent days. Hamas wants an end to the land and sea blockade that has crippled Gaza’s economy and no more targeted killings by Israel of its leadership.

PHOTOS: Israel-Gaza violence

Such an agreement would be an astonishing achievement given that Israel views Hamas as a terrorist organization and Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Whether or not they alter those stances, an internationally endorsed truce between the two would usher in a new phase in their relationship. Previously Israel and Hamas had informal agreements brokered through third-party intermediaries, such as last year’s deal to release captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

There are sizable risks for both sides, but also opportunities, said Doron Avital, an Israeli lawmaker with the centrist Kadima Party and a former commander of an elite commando unit. Hamas would win some of the international legitimization it craves, but it might also need to moderate its behavior, as the Palestine Liberation Organization did after signing the Oslo Accords in 1993.

“It might elevate the status of Hamas, but that will also mean that Hamas will have to play realpolitik,’’ Avital said. “It can’t stay a terrorist organization forever. There’s an interesting potential here.”

But heated remarks by Hamas Political Bureau Chief Khalid Meshal during a Cairo news conference Monday raised doubt that any historic handshakes would be seen in the near future. He called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “child killer” and “murderer.”

“It is Netanyahu who asked for a truce,’’ Meshal said. “Gazans don’t even want a truce.”

Egyptian officials nevertheless expressed cautious optimism. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is visiting the region to help facilitate a deal.

[Updated 11:05 a.m. Nov. 19: And White House staff traveling with President Obama in Southeast Asia said he spoke with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi late Monday about ways to end the fighting and also called Netanyahu for a briefing.]

Some blamed the negotiations for an uptick in violence in recent days, as each side attempts to pressure the other and score some final hits before a truce is called.


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