EREZ, Israel -- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators appeared Monday to be homing in on an agreement on a cease-fire that would end Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, which have killed 101 Palestinians in the past six days, and head off what analysts had expected would be a far bloodier incursion by Israeli ground forces.
Israeli leaders were meeting late into the night to decide their next move, but Israeli soldiers in Erez said they had received orders to stand down from the high alert that had them poised Sunday to storm across the border. Soldiers in Erez, near the main Gaza crossing point, appeared noticeably more relaxed as they took smoking breaks and called family to say they hoped they would be home by the weekend.
Palestinian negotiators agreed that progress had been made in talks in Cairo, where Egyptian officials were shuttling between the two sides, whose representatives, according to those familiar with the talks, refused to meet one another face to face.
Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the coastal strip, told a news conference in Cairo that the Hamas-led government would resist any Israeli invasion and that the Israeli bombing campaign had not seriously damaged Palestinian morale or infrastructure. But between statements of defiance, he also said his side was open to a cease-fire agreement – if it included a lifting of Israel’s blockade, which has left Gaza residents unable to travel freely outside the strip and severely limited their ability to import badly needed equipment and materials.
“We are not against calm,” Meshaal said. “But there must be specific demands . . . that the Israeli thuggery and aggression stop . . . and the siege on Gaza be lifted.”
Israeli officials said any agreement would have to include a commitment from Hamas to a long-term cessation of rocket fire into Israel from both Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
“This has to be a long-term quiet, not just a couple weeks,” said Josh Hantman, a spokesman for Israel’s Defense Ministry. He said that Israeli officials wanted a cease-fire that lasted “years, not days or weeks.” Palestinian officials agreed that they were seeking a long-term deal, though they said that neither side had introduced a timeframe so far.
A senior official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said that a deal could be reached in a matter of “days or hours,” though he said the talks were moving “very slowly, very carefully.”
“We have been burned by these talks in the past and there is a lack of trust on both sides,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the talks.
Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil was optimistic, if cautious, in an interview with the Reuters news agency.
“I hope we will reach something soon that will stop this violence and counter-violence," he was quoted as saying. "I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of negotiation (means) it is very difficult to predict."
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, White House officials said that President Barack Obama, who is in Cambodia for a summit meeting with Asian leaders, had spoken with both Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, expressing regret for the loss of life on both sides but making a point with Morsi, a longtime supporter of Hamas, that Hamas must end rocket fire into Israel.