Sharp exchanges as Israel and Hamas resume negotiations

Hamas wrong to seek to cover up military loss with political moves, says Netanyahu

Palestinians ride a donkey cart yesterday past the ruins of houses that witnesses said were destroyed during the Israeli offensive in Johr El-Deek village near the central Gaza Strip. Photograph: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinians ride a donkey cart yesterday past the ruins of houses that witnesses said were destroyed during the Israeli offensive in Johr El-Deek village near the central Gaza Strip. Photograph: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Mon, Aug 18, 2014, 01:00

Talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators got off to a rocky start yesterday with sharp exchanges between Israel and Hamas as both sides strive to secure objectives they have failed to obtain in their armed conflict.

Israeli prime minister Binymin Netanyahu said: “If Hamas thinks it can cover up its military losses with a political achievement it is wrong.”

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri responded: “Netanyahu’s comments about victory are far-fetched. [He is] compensating for his failure, [and needs] to feed the media and avoid growing Israeli anger” over Israel’s inability to defeat Hamas and allied fighters.

A key issue in dispute is Palestinian insistence that Israel agrees to lift completely its punitive eight-year siege and blockade of Gaza during the Cairo negotiations rather than, as has been suggested, at some time in the future during talks between Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

Trade-off

Israel is seeking a trade-off: an end to the siege and blockade for the disarmament of Hamas and demilitarisation of Gaza, a proposal rejected by Hamas.

Palestinians want internationally guaranteed long-term understandings to be achieved in Cairo. They do not trust Israel to honour commitments. Israel promised in 2011 and 2012 to lift Gaza’s siege and blockade but eased only some aspects while tightening others. Israel allowed into Gaza a larger volume and a wider range of foodstuffs, clothing, and consumer items while maintaining strict controls over the passage through goods crossings it controls of cement and aggregate for construction, authorising shipments only for projects undertaken by UN agencies.

These materials, urgently needed for reconstruction in the aftermath of the latest destructive conflict, have previously been brought into the strip through smuggling tunnels stretching beneath the Egypt-Gaza border, trade disrupted by Egypt over the past three years.

Before the teams left Cairo last week, Egypt put forward a proposal calling for an end to all attacks; the opening of border crossings and movement of goods and people in accordance with understandings reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; transfer to Gaza salaries of civil servants appointed by Hamas; elimination of Israel’s buffer zone within Gaza; and expansion of Gaza’s fishing grounds from three to 12 nautical miles from the shore.

After a month, delegations would return to Cairo to discuss construction of a sea port and airport for Gaza, prisoner releases and repatriation of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza.

Acceptance urged

While Israel has not commented on Cairo’s plan, Hamas has rejected it, although the West Bank-based authority has reportedly urged acceptance. The proposal falls far short of the demands of Israelis for security and the Palestinians for an end to the blockade.

Mr Netanyahu said: “Only if there is a clear answer to Israel’s security needs will we agree to reach an understanding.”

Mr Abu Zuhri replied: “They only way to achieve security is to accord security to the Palestinians first, lift the blockade, and agree to their demands . . . We are committed to achieving the Palestinian demands and there is no way back from this [as they] are basic human rights” which should have been granted without “this battle or these negotiations”.

Hamas foreign affairs chief Osama Hamdan, speaking from Beirut, warned: “Israel must accept the demands of the Palestinian people or face a long war.” Hamas has spoken of a “war of attrition”.

During Israel’s military offensive, 1,984 Palestinians were slain, 73 per cent civilians, and 10,196 wounded. The UN said 425,000 of Gaza’s 1.8 million people have been displaced. Half of them are living in UN schools where students are due to begin the new term this week.

Israel’s dead include 64 soldiers and three civilians, one a Thai national.