Tensions high between Palestinians and Israelis as Hamas says it will not extend truce
Two sides trade accusations as a three-day lull ends with Hamas saying it will not extend ceasefire after four weeks of conflict claims at least 1,890 Palestinian and 67 Israeli lives
Fears rose that the Gaza conflict could resume on Friday as a temporary ceasefire entered its final stretch and Palestinians accused Israel of stalling at truce talks in Cairo.
Israel had said it was ready to “indefinitely” extend the 72-hour lull, due to expire at 8am local time on Friday.
But two senior Hamas officials said the Palestinian militant movement would not extend the lull in hostilites, accusing Israel of rejecting their demands.
A leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller faction in Gaza also present at Cairo-mediated truce talks, confirmed both factions had decided not to extend the ceasefire.
Earlier on Friday the Israeli army said two rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip. The rockets fell on an open area of southern Israel and caused no casualties, the army said. Hamas denied it had launched the projectiles.
A senior Palestinian official had accused Israel of procrastinating in Cairo , warning that it could lead to as resumption of the fighting when the deadline ran out.
“The Israeli delegation had proposed extending the ceasefire while refusing a number of the Palestinian demands,” he said, without elaborating.
“If Israel continues its procrastination, we will not extend the ceasefire.”
A spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, warned just hours before the truce expired that fighting would resume if their demands were not met, first and foremost to open a sea port to the blockaded Palestinian enclave.
“If there is an agreement, it will be possible to extend the truce, but if there is not, we will ask the delegation to withdraw from the talks,” a spokesman using the nom-de-guerre Abu Obeida said in a televised address.
In Gaza, residents resigned themselves to the truce being in jeopardy. Many were still sheltering in schools, reluctant to return to their damaged homes without a lasting end to the boombing.
“Everything is possible, everything is ready, if there are no demands [met at the talks], there will be more destruction,” said Najib Habib, 35, a labourer from Shejaiya, one of the worst-hit areas.
Four weeks of bloodshed between Israel and Hamas has killed 1,890 Palestinians, and 67 people on the Israeli side, almost all soldiers.
A former spokesman for Hamas – the son of one of the group’s founders – was found dead on Thursday in a neighbourhood of the city that was heavily bombed by Israel, the movement said.
Ayman Taha was killed when Israeli forces “targeted him in the apartment where he was with several others in Gaza City” in the Shejaiya neighbourhood, the group said in a statement.
UN figures indicate that 73 per cent of the Palestinian victims – or 1,354 people – were civilians. Of that number, at least 429 were children.
Hamas and Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) officials had laid out a number of demands, starting with the lifting of Israel’s eight-year blockade on Gaza.
They also want the release of around 125 key prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Israel’s negotiating team, which had earlier flown home for consultations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, returned later to Cairo, an Israeli official told reporters, without saying what had been discussed.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum had said there was no official stance on either renewing the truce or resuming the fighting, but an anonymous official familiar with the talks had been pessimistic.
“The factions currently think they will resume fighting tomorrow morning,” he told the media on Thursday.
A senior Israeli military official said: “Right now there is uncertainty; on the one hand the public in Gaza and in the region and the international community are telling [Hamas] not to ... leave negotiations” while on the other hand the military wing of Hamas is warning they could restart the rocket launches.” .
Despite the withdrawal of all its troops from Gaza by the time the three-day truce began early on Tuesday, Israel retained forces along the border ready to respond to any resumption of fighting.
Netanyahu’s handling of the conflict has received broad support from the Israeli public, Israeli newspaper Haaretz said on Friday.
It cited a poll it conducted before the ceasefire that showed 77 per cent of respondents thought his handling of events was “excellent or good” and pointed out that since then there were no public marches or rallies against the decision to withdraw troops without a decisive victory.
Speaking in Jerusalem after a visit to Gaza, International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer said he was “deeply distressed and shocked” at the impact of violence, saying the scale of the civilian losses must not happen again.
And he suggested there may have been violations of international humanitarian law.
In some areas, there were scenes of utter devastation, with certain districts reduced to a sea of rubble and shattered hulks of buildings, one international correspondent said.
US President Barack Obama had increased the pressure on the talks by saying Gaza could not remain forever cut off by Israel’s blockade, which has been in place since 2006.
“Long term, there has to be a recognition that Gaza cannot sustain itself permanently closed off from the world,” Obama said, adding the Palestinians needed to see “some prospects for an opening of Gaza so that they do not feel walled off”.
And London, Paris and Berlin had submitted an initiative offering an outline for rebuilding Gaza while ensuring Israel’s security concerns were properly addressed, a diplomatic source said.
The proposal aimed to strengthen the hand of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority while clamping down on the Gaza-based militant groups.
It also envisaged the opening of Gaza's Rafah border crossing with Egypt, then eventually opening other crossings into Israel. And It referred to the opening of a commercial port in Gaza, the source said.