GAZA/CAIRO (Reuters) – 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, the Israeli army said a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip had landed inside southern Israel, without causing damage or casualties.
Hamas Islamists denied launching the missile, but there was no immediate word from its allies in the Palestinian enclave.
As the deadline neared, Israel moved forces closer to Gaza and called up additional reservist troops, Israeli media reported. The military said its forces were “moved around on a routine basis” and would not elaborate.
A Palestinian official with knowledge of negotiations in Cairo said Egypt had presented a new proposal for a permanent truce agreement that addressed 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.
Israeli negotiators had returned to Egypt after overnighting in Israel with the truce in the month-old hostilities – which have killed 1,945 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and 67 on the Israeli side – due to expire at 2100 GMT.
Gaza was still a dangerous place, even with the guns silent.
An Italian journalist, his translator, three Palestinian bomb disposal workers and one other person died on Wednesday when unexploded munitions blew up in the north of the enclave as attempts were being made to defuse the ordnance, officials said.
Simone Camilli, 35, a video journalist working for the Associated Press, was the first international journalist killed in the latest Gaza conflict. Palestinians say more than 10 local media workers have also died in the fighting.
South of Gaza, a child was killed and two others were wounded when a rocket landed on their home in the Egyptian town of el-Mattallah south of the border town of Rafah, security and medical sources. It was not immediately clear who fired the rocket.
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 on the territory’s 1.8 million residents, as a prerequisite to achieving a “permanent calm”.
Egyptian and Palestinian sources said Israel had tentatively agreed to allow some supplies into the Gaza Strip and relax curbs on the cross-border movement of people and goods, subject to certain conditions. They did not elaborate, and in Israel, officials remained silent on the state of the talks.
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.
As part of the Egyptian blueprint, Israel would expand fishing limits it imposes on Gaza fishermen to six miles (10 km) from the usual three-mile offshore zone.
“It will increase gradually to no less than 12 miles in coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel,” the official said, referring to a likely expanded role in Gaza affairs for the government of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, based in areas of the West Bank not occupied by Israel.
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.
The two sides are not meeting face-to-face in Cairo: Israel regards Hamas, which advocates its destruction, as a terrorist group. But the official said once they inform Egypt of their agreement, a ceasefire accord could be signed the same day.
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, hospital officials in the small, densely populated enclave say.
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.
The heavy losses among civilians and the destruction of thousands of homes in Gaza, where the United Nations said 425,000 of 1.8 million population have been displaced by the war, have stoked international alarm.
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.
(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem, Stephen Kalin and Asma Alsharif in Cairo; Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Crispian Balmer)