Hamas official to 'Post': Deal likely this week

EU envoy says Israel and the Palestinian Authority are ready to reopen the Rafah crossing.

Sami Abu Zuhri 224 88 (photo credit: Channel 2 [file])
Sami Abu Zuhri 224 88
(photo credit: Channel 2 [file])
A top Hamas official told The Jerusalem Post late on Monday that he believes an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas is likely to be reached by Thursday. Ahmed Youssef, the Gaza-based deputy foreign minister and former political adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, said he had not yet heard back from a Hamas delegation in Cairo, which was scheduled to meet Egyptian officials about a cease-fire proposal. But he said he was optimistic that a cease-fire agreement was imminent. "All I know is that there are positive signals," Youssef told the Post by telephone. "We are heading toward a right direction, toward a cease-fire. I do believe that they will find a way in the next couple of days for them to announce something." Another senior Hamas official, Mohammed Nasr, told Al-Jazeera earlier Monday that differences in positions were holding up a deal. "Unfortunately, there is still a gap between the Palestinian position and the position of the occupation [Israel]; the stubbornness of the occupation has thwarted all the efforts," Nasr charged. Hamas is seeking a one-year truce, the opening of all border crossings, a lifting of the embargo, including the free movement of all construction materials, and a halt to all Israeli aggression, Youssef said. In addition, Hamas had rejected any Israeli security arrangements at Egypt's Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip, he said. Instead, arrangements would be worked out among the Egyptians, Palestinians and Europeans, he said. The European Union's special representative for the Middle East peace process, Marc Otte, told the Post on Monday that as far as he knew, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority were ready to reopen the Rafah crossing under the 2005 agreement on movement and access. That 2005 agreement placed the PA on the Gaza side of Rafah along with the European Union, which physically monitored that border in conjunction with Israel. Israel checked on movement there with the help of surveillance equipment. "This is a trilateral agreement between Israel, the PA and the EU," said Otte "Everyone, as far as I know, has said that they want to return to that agreement. We are ready. We have the people and the manpower and the equipment. We need conformation from the Egyptians." Although noting that "we do not exclude other steps" in the future, Otte said a return to the 2005 deal was the only proposal on the table in Cairo. "If we can revive it and make it operational, it would be a good first step," Otte said. In addition to opening the Rafah crossing, he said, the EU also wanted to see an increase in humanitarian aid through the Karni and Kerem Shalom crossings between Israel and Gaza. Since Hamas took over Gaza in a violent coup in the 2007, Israel has allowed only a limited amount of commercial products into Gaza. More needs to come in to allow for the Palestinians "to return to normal life," Otte urged. Defense officials said Monday that Israel was waiting to see the outcome of the Egyptian-Hamas talks in Cairo but that it appeared that the terrorist group was close to accepting a cease-fire for at least a year. "It seems like it is close to being finalized," one official said, but quickly added that there were reports that the talks in Cairo had encountered difficulties. Israel, the official said, was linking the negotiations for the release of captive solider Gilad Schalit to the talks in Cairo, and would open the crossings into Gaza only after concluding that the negotiations were on a "fast track." Israel also opposed a cease-fire limited by time, and had told the Egyptians that it plans to respond swiftly to every breach of the truce. "We will not accept a cease-fire that is limited to a year," another official said. "For every rocket or terror attack, there will be a response." Israel's conditions were transmitted to the Egyptians by Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau during a recent visit to Cairo. At least one Kassam rocket and several mortar shells were fired into the western Negev on Monday, but they caused no harm. The air force responded by bombing a vehicle in the southern Gaza Strip which the military said was carrying the cell that had fired the mortar shells. According to witnesses in the area, one person was killed and three others were wounded in the IAF strike. The IDF said that the men were part of the cell which fired the mortar shell into Israel. Late Sunday night, IAF planes struck Hamas targets throughout Gaza after at least 15 Kassam rockets and mortar shells had hit the western Negev since the beginning of the day. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that while last month's operation against Hamas had been effective in harming the group's ability to threaten Israel, the day may come when another operation would be necessary. "The quiet in the South is a result of the serious blow dealt to Hamas in Gaza, and even if it takes a little more time and a few more shots are fired, this is the nature of events of this kind," Barak told Army Radio, adding that "if we have to, we will hit Hamas again." Barak later sparked a political storm by telling an election rally at Beersheba's Ben-Gurion University that the best way to achieve territorial continuity between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank was by digging a tunnel that would connect the two areas. He said the tunnel would be 48 kilometers long and cost 2-3 billion dollars. Right-wing MKs quickly criticized Barak's proposal, saying it would only add to Israel's security concerns. On Monday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul Azeez to discuss a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. In addition, ten Arab foreign ministers are scheduled to convene in an urgent meeting in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday to discuss the issue of Palestinian reconciliation, an Egyptian official told the Post on Monday. The foreign minister of Egypt and Saudi Arabia flew from Cairo to Abu Dhabi on Monday evening, and eight other foreign ministers are expected to attend. Other attendees include the foreign ministers of Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the Palestinian Authority, he said. But Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki downplayed the meeting, saying it was only for "consultations" to discuss "the situation in general." He said reconciliation among Palestinian factions would be among topics discussed. Abbas arrived Monday in Paris to try to drum up diplomatic support for a Palestinian unity government and to push for a European role in rebuilding the war-shattered Gaza Strip. He was scheduled to meet with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, who helped broker the Gaza cease-fire. Earlier, Sarkozy met Qatar's prime minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, whose Persian Gulf country has emerged as a regional mediator since helping to resolve a political crisis in Lebanon last year. Al-Thani insisted Hamas should not be sidelined from peace efforts, and said Arab nations should not play favorites in pushing for a solution. "We must work for a government of national unity between the Palestinians," he told reporters after the talks. "Arab countries cannot support this or the other Palestinian party against another." "There should not be efforts to delete or distance one of the Palestinian parties present on the ground," he said, referring to Hamas. Earlier Monday, US President Barack Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, met with Sarkozy's chief of staff before sitting down with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner for lunch. During their meeting, Kouchner and Mitchell discussed their common desire to see that the cease-fire in Gaza holds for the long term, said a French diplomatic official. Mitchell met with Palestinian and Israeli leaders last week. AP contributed to this report.