Mashaal 248.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
A day after the Prime Minister's Office played down reports of an imminent cease-fire deal with Hamas, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni were set to convene Sunday morning for discussions on a truce and securing captured soldier Gilad Schalit's release.
Also Sunday, Olmert was expected to discuss the issue with the man likely to take over from him, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu.
On Saturday night, with rumors swirling that Israel and Hamas were just hours away from a cease-fire deal, Osama Hamdan, a Hamas representative in Lebanon, said that Israel's insistence on including Schalit's release in any truce agreement with his organization was jeopardizing the chances of reaching such an agreement, Reuters reported.
"The delay on Israel's part is aimed at achieving further ends and wasting more time and effort," Hamdan told Al Jazeera.
Earlier Saturday, the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement pouring cold water on reports that a deal was on the cards, and making it clear for the first time that Israel will not accept a truce that does not include the return of Schalit.
"It should be emphasized that what is on top of Israel's priorities are the security of the residents of the South and the release of Gilad Schalit," the statement said.
"Israel will invest all its efforts to further these two goals.
"The prime minister's position is that Israel will not reach an agreement on a calm before the release of Gilad Schalit."
Government sources said this was the first time Schalit's freedom had been mentioned so unequivocally as a condition of a truce agreement, and pointed out that in the six-month cease-fire agreement reached last June the only reference to Schalit was that negotiations for his release would be stepped up.
The sources offered no explanation as to what brought about this change of policy, or whether it was connected to the results of last Tuesday's election.
In light of reports based on foreign sources that Jerusalem was about to sign an agreement with Hamas, the Prime Minister's Office wanted to clarify that Israel "was not conducting negotiations with Hamas and would certainly not reach understandings with it," as the statement said.
Israel has stressed that its negotiations, led by Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, are being held with the Egyptians, not with Hamas.
According to the statement, government consultations will be held on Sunday regarding the situation in the South.
"In any event, if any decision is needed it will be made only after convening the security cabinet, and taking into consideration the new political circumstances that have been created as a result of the election."
Defense officials, meanwhile, said a decision on a new cease-fire might be put off until a new government was formed, something that could take weeks.
Hamas leaders and spokesmen, meanwhile, issued conflicting statements over the weekend regarding the prospects for a cease-fire.
Some expressed optimism, saying the Egyptian mediators had managed to bridge the gap between Hamas and Israel. Others, however, said it was premature to talk about a breakthrough because of Israel's refusal to reopen the border crossings and lift the blockade on Gaza.
Ismail Radwan, a top Hamas representative in the Strip, said on Saturday evening that, barring last-minute surprises, a cease-fire agreement was expected "within the next few hours."
Radwan said that Hamas negotiators who were currently in Cairo had reached a series of understandings with the Egyptians over the terms of a cease-fire.
"The Egyptians have accepted the understandings and Hamas will not change its position," he said. "We continue to insist that any cease-fire agreement include the reopening of all the border crossings, including the Rafah crossing."
Radwan refused to specify the nature of the understandings that were reached with the Egyptians and whether they referred to Schalit.
But Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, said the talks were facing difficulties because of Israeli "intransigence."
He said that Hamas was told by the Egyptians that Israel had changed its position and was now demanding an open-ended truce and not one limited to 18 months.
"The cease-fire agreement has been concluded and we are waiting for the Egyptian government to announce it," Barhoum said. "But we have learned that the Israelis are placing new obstacles. Hamas will not agree to an open-ended truce."
Salah Bardaweel, a Hamas legislator who participated in the Egyptian-sponsored talks, said the agreement called for an 18-month truce that would go into effect on Sunday morning.
The accord also called to lift the blockade and reopen all the border crossings, he said.
Bardaweel said Egypt had promised to reopen the Rafah border crossing under the terms of a new agreement that would replace the one that was reached under the auspices of the US in 2005.
He said the new agreement would allow Hamas to join forces with the Palestinian Authority in managing the terminal. He said it also called for stationing European monitors at the border.
However, unlike in the 2005 agreement, the monitors would be required to live in the northern Sinai town of el-Arish, and not in Israel.
Meanwhile, five Gazan rockets pounded the South over the weekend, including a Grad-model Katyusha that traveled 40 kilometers and hit Gan Yavne. In response, the air force bombed eight Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip.
On Saturday afternoon, a bomb went off next to an IDF vehicle that was patrolling the Gaza border. No one was injured, and soldiers searched the area for gunmen and additional explosive devices.
The Grad that hit Yavne was the first long-range rocket fired into Israel since Operation Cast Lead ended last month. IDF early-warning systems did not detect the fire, military sources said.
Over the weekend, the air force targeted weapons manufacturing facilities in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza as well as smuggling tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor.
Palestinians reported six people wounded in the strikes.
On Friday, the IAF hit a vehicle in the southern town of Khan Yunis, killing two men, who the IDF said were global jihad operatives and were in the midst of planning an attack against Israel.
On Friday, a 14-year-old Arab boy was reportedly shot and killed by IDF troops during rioting near Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs, Palestinian medical sources said.
The army said it shot one of the instigators of the riot, which included rock throwing and use of Molotov cocktails.
JPost.com staff contributed to this report