GAZA CITY: Hamas prime minister on Wednesday called for a period of calm with Israel, laying out conditions that would imply limited international acceptance of Islamic militant rule in Gaza, but also allow US-brokered Mideast peace talks to move forward.
The offer by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh came amid growing signs that Israel and Hamas are moving closer toward an Egyptian-brokered deal to end weeks of cross-border fighting that has killed dozens of people, nearly all of them Palestinians. At the center of the arrangement would be the deployment of officers loyal to Hamas political rival, moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, at Gaza s crossings.
Hamas officials said they accept such a deployment in principle, even though it means giving up some control, and that they have given Egypt names of pro-Abbas officers who would be acceptable to Hamas.
In a speech at Gaza City s Islamic University, Haniyeh demanded an end to Israeli military activity in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, a lifting of Israeli economic sanctions and the opening of Gaza s borders, which have been sealed since Hamas seized control of the area last June.
We are talking about a mutual comprehensive calm, which means that the enemy must fulfill its obligations, Haniyeh said. The Israelis must stop the aggression … including assassinations and invasions, end the sanctions and open the borders.
Haniyeh also said all of the factions are involved, signaling that Hamas has the support of smaller militant groups that have often scuttled ceasefire attempts in the past.
While Haniyeh s demands were not new, the timing and location of the speech were significant. Haniyeh had been in hiding for several weeks during heavy fighting with Israel, and only has felt safe enough to appear in public in recent days.
With US backing, Egypt has been trying to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas following an especially bloody round of fighting that killed five Israelis and more than 120 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians.
There are efforts by the Egyptian brothers who are working on this issue. We as Palestinians are waiting for the Israeli answers, Haniyeh said. The ball is in Israel s court.
The US fears that continued fighting will torpedo peace talks between Israel and Abbas, who controls the West Bank.
Israel stepped up its attacks in Gaza in response to repeated rocket barrages on southern Israeli towns fired by Hamas militants. The fighting has subsided in recent days, but both sides have denied talk of a formal truce.
Haniyeh used the word tahdia, or calm, to describe the informal ceasefire he sought. He avoided use of another word often used in Arabic, hudna, which is interpreted as a more formal truce. Both terms denote a temporary ceasefire rather than a permanent peace, but even the subtle differences between the words has led to fierce debate among Arabs in past ceasefire efforts.
Israel has repeatedly warned that Hamas would use any lull to rearm.
”We are not in a situation of an arrangement here,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during a tour of the Gaza border.
”We are in the midst of operations aimed at stopping rocket fire,” he added. ”There is no change in what we’re doing. What awaits us here is more operations.”
Despite such comments, there were growing signs that the Egyptian mediation efforts are beginning to bear fruit.
Israeli defense officials said Tuesday that the army would not retaliate for a lone rocket attack after determining that Hamas had not launched the weapon. On Wednesday, the volatile border area remained quiet.
In another indication of progress, Hamas officials said they have proposed that security forces loyal to Abbas, their fierce rival, be allowed to monitor Gaza’s border crossings.
”We have agreed to have the Palestinian Authority staff on the border, not our staff, as long as those involved in corruption be excluded,” said Alaa Araj, an adviser to Haniyeh. ”The details are being discussed in Cairo.”
Allowing Abbas’ men to guard the crossings would mark a significant concession by Hamas, which has ruled Gaza with an iron fist since routing the presidents’ forces last June. But it might be acceptable to Israel, which is negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinian president.
Israeli officials declined comment on any possible future border arrangement.
Abbas has refused to speak to Hamas since the takeover, demanding it first relinquish power. Although cutting a deal with Hamas would effectively recognize its control of Gaza, it also would give Abbas a new foothold in the area.
Israel and Abbas hope to reach a final peace agreement by the end of the year. But Israel has said it cannot carry out any deal until Abbas regains control of Gaza.
The Palestinians want an independent state that includes the West Bank and Gaza, areas located on opposite sides of Israel.