Israeli Negotiator To Join Gaza Peace Talks

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Diplomatic efforts in Cairo to try to reach a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip are expected to intensify Thursday with the arrival of a senior Israeli official. Hamas has signaled that it is ready to reach a deal on a truce, but more talks are needed.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

So the Gaza fighting rages on even as Egyptian mediators and Hamas officials say they are making progress on a potential cease-fire. An Israeli negotiator arrived in Cairo today. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from the Egyptian capital.

PETER KENYON: For several days now, Israel's lead contact with the cease-fire efforts, General Amos Gilad, has remained in Jerusalem while Hamas negotiators met with Egyptian and other officials trying to craft an accord that would end the Palestinian rocket fire and the Israeli military operation. But now it seems that the talks are close to bearing fruit. Hamas official Ghazi Hamad, speaking from Gaza, told NPR that talks have progressed to the point where the proposal can be put to the Israeli side.

Dr. GHAZI HAMAD (Hamas Senior Official): Look, I can say without going in details that the negotiation between Hamas and the Egyptians are very good and there is positive atmosphere, positive negotiation. And I think now this is the (unintelligible) the Egyptian side to talk with the Israeli side, in order to understand what is its position now.

KENYON: The sticking points are likely in the details, according to officials familiar with the talks. One issue is the length of the cease-fire. Suggestions have ranged from a year or longer to as little as 10 days. A brief cessation of violence would be intended to give negotiators time to work out a longer-term deal. It would also mean that when Barack Obama is sworn into office, Gaza would be quiet. Some analysts have wondered if Israel always intended to finish its Gaza operation before President Bush leaves office on Tuesday.

Israel wants guarantees that Hamas won't use any cease-fire to rearm, which in its eyes means a more effective effort to block arms trafficking through the tunnels from Egypt that the Israeli air force has been relentlessly bombing this week. The 2005 agreement on the Rafah crossing to Egypt involved EU monitors, and Hamas has signaled some willingness to have Turkish forces on its side of the border. The Israelis seem to be counting on a beefed up effort from Washington to assist in controlling the smuggling.

Analysts say the Cairo talks have been hampered by conflicting agendas, and not just between Israel and Hamas. Within Hamas, officials from Gaza have consistently sounded more open to a cease-fire, while those based in Damascus called for more armed resistance. That rhetorical gap has closed recently, although Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil told reporters in Cairo that the group's goals have not changed.

Mr. SALAH AL-BARDAWIL (Hamas Official): (Through Translator) We continue in all directions to achieve all of our goals to stop the aggression and break the siege and open the border crossings and rebuild Gaza and compensate people. This is what we are looking for. The Egyptian initiative is the only initiative that has been put forward to us, and we continue to coordinate with this.

KENYON: The Islamist Hamas movement is also estranged from the secular Fatah movement that runs the Palestinian Authority. There has been talk of a national unity government, but no real moves in that direction. And Palestinian disunity seems to reflect the larger Arab world with pro-Hamas states such as Syria and Iran condemning Egyptian and Saudi Arabian leaders who remain deeply uncomfortable with Islamist movements such as Hamas.

In Beirut, former EU negotiator Alistair Crook told Al-Jazeera's international channel that these cease-fire talks might have gone more smoothly had Egypt not been preoccupied with its own concerns about Hamas' growing popularity.

(Soundbite of Al-Jazeera broadcast)

Mr. ALISTAIR CROOK (Former EU Negotiator): And it would indeed be a paradox if we can't reach a cease-fire because there are other agendas that are intruding into it. And in fact it's, I think, almost to the state where we are having a mediation between the mediators, if you like, between Turkey and Egypt. And this is happening really at a time when we do see signs that Israel is actually looking for a way out.

KENYON: Arab divisions continued yesterday with Qatar calling for an emergency summit that was dismissed by Riyadh and Cairo. But officials say the best hope for a cease-fire still lies with the Egyptian effort. If the details are hammered out quickly, the proposal would still have to go before Israel's Security Cabinet and then the full Cabinet for approval. For the residents of Gaza, that likely means at least a few more days of the relentless pounding they have endured for nearly three weeks now. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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