The threat of renewed war in Gaza loomed on Wednesday as the clock ticked towards the end of a three-day ceasefire with no sign of a breakthrough in indirect talks in Cairo between Israel and the Palestinians.
Officials in Egypt indicated that the talks were struggling, but said efforts were still being made to reach some sort of a deal before the truce expired at 2100 GMT, including possibly extending the suspension of hostilities by a further 72 hours.
Two hours before the temporary ceasefire was due to end a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landing inside southern Israel. Hamas Islamists denied launching the missile.
A Palestinian official with knowledge of negotiations in Cairo said Egypt had presented a new proposal for a permanent truce agreement that included a major Palestinian demand for a lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the Gaza Strip.
Israel and Egypt harbor deep security concerns about Hamas, the dominant Islamist group in the small, Mediterranean coastal enclave, complicating any deal on easing border restrictions.
It was unclear from the official’s remarks how those worries, along with Israel’s demand for Gaza’s demilitarization, would be dealt with. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said disarming was not an option.
Azzam Ahmed, an official of the mainstream Fatah party who heads the Palestinian team in Cairo, said the negotiations were at a very sensitive stage and it hoped to reach a ceasefire accord before the current truce expired.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told Al-Aqsa Hamas television the group would insist on “lifting the Gaza blockade” and reducing movement restrictions as a prerequisite to achieving a “permanent calm”.
A Palestinian demand for a Gaza seaport and reconstruction of an airport destroyed in previous conflicts with Israel has also been a stumbling block, with the Jewish state citing security reasons for opposing their operation.
The Palestinian official said Egypt had proposed that a discussion of that issue be delayed for a month after the long-term ceasefire deal takes hold.
In addition, the official said, the Egyptian plan calls for reducing the size of a “no-go” area for Palestinians on the Gaza side of the border from 300 meters (yards) to 100 meters so that local farmers can recover plots lost to security crackdowns.
Since Israel launched its military campaign on July 8 to quell cross-border rocket fire from Gaza, most of the Palestinian dead have been civilians despite Israel providing consistent warning with each bomb attack to help increase civilian evacuation.
Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians. Many of the Palestinian rocket salvoes have been intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system or fallen on open ground, but have disrupted life for tens of thousands of Israelis.
On Tuesday, Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas’s leader in Cairo, described the negotiations as “difficult”. An Israeli official, who declined to be identified, said no progress had been made.
A previous 72-hour ceasefire last week expired without a longer-term deal and Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes resumed, although at lower intensity.
Israel pulled ground forces out of Gaza last week after it said the army had completed its main mission of destroying more than 30 tunnels dug by militants for cross-border ambushes. It now wants guarantees Hamas will not use any reconstruction supplies sent into the enclave to rebuild the tunnels.