Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Gaza truce talks hardened their positions yesterday ahead of the expiration of a five-day ceasefire, although both sides appeared reluctant to return to the conflict that has destroyed large parts of the densely populated coastal strip.
The month-long conflict has killed more than 1,900 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, according to Palestinian and UN officials. Israel has lost 67 people, all but three soldiers.
Since last week, indirect talks have been taking place in Cairo through Egyptian mediators in an effort to end to the war and draw up a plan for Gaza's future.
On Sunday, Palestinian and Israeli delegations resumed the talks following weekend consultations across the Middle East but gaps between the two sides remained wide, with each staking out maximalist positions.
The Gaza blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt since Hamas took control of the strip in 2007, remains the main stumbling block. It has greatly limited the movement of Palestinians in and out of the territory of 1.8 million people, restricted the flow of goods into Gaza and blocked virtually all exports.
Palestinian negotiator Qais Abdul Karim said that on Sunday Israel pressed for guarantees that Hamas and other militant factions in Gaza would be disarmed, while the Palestinians demanded an end to the blockade without pre-conditions.
The five-day ceasefire was set to end early this morning but Ziad Nakhleh, head of the Islamic Jihad faction within the Palestinian delegation in Cairo, said he expected it to be extended if a deal was not reached by then.
"The war is behind us now," he said. "We are not returning to war."
Hamas has said repeatedly that it would not give up its weapons, while Israel said it needed to maintain some degree of control over Gaza crossings to prevent the smuggling of weapons and weapons production materials into the coastal strip.
Karim said Egyptian mediators had pressed the Palestinians to present compromise proposals on the border-crossing issue. The Palestinian delegation was in a meeting in the early hours of yesterday over it but the outcome was not known.
In a possible move to pressure Hamas to soften its positions on the blockade and related issues, Norway's foreign minister said yesterday that his country and Egypt were planning to co-host a donor conference in Cairo for the reconstruction of Gaza.
Boerge Brende said invitations would be sent out once there was an agreement in the truce talks.