Talks to end a month-long war between Israel and Islamist militants in Gaza have made no progress so far, an Israeli official said on Tuesday, as a 72-hour ceasefire in the shattered Palestinian enclave held for a second day. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were expected to reconvene later in the day in Cairo where Hamas and its allies are seeking an end to an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip.
"The gaps between the sides are big and there is no progress in the negotiations," said an Israeli official who declined to be named. There was no immediate comment from Hamas, the Islamist group that dominates Gaza. A Palestinian official with knowledge of the Cairo talks told Reuters, on condition of anonymity: "So far we can't say a breakthrough has been achieved ... Twenty-four hours and we shall see whether we have an agreement."
Hamas also wants the opening of a Mediterranean seaport for impoverished Gaza, a project Israel says should be dealt with only in any future talks on a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians. Israel has resisted lifting the economically stifling blockade on Gaza and suspects Hamas will restock with weapons from abroad if access to the coastal territory is eased. Neighbouring Egypt also sees Hamas as a security threat.
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 attacks. It now wants guarantees Hamas will not use any reconstruction supplies sent into the enclave to rebuild those tunnels.
The Palestinian official said the Palestinian delegation had consented that reconstruction in Gaza should be carried out by the unity government of technocrats set up in June by Hamas and the more secular Fatah party of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the West Bank.
Israeli representatives are not meeting face-to-face with the Palestinian delegation because it includes Hamas, which Israel regards as a terrorist organisation. Hamas for its part is sworn to Israel's destruction.
- War Crimes Investigation -
Gaza hospital officials have said 1,938 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed since the July 8 launch of Israel's military campaign to quell rocket and mortar fire from the enclave into its towns.
Israel has lost 64 soldiers and three civilians, one of them a Thai farm worker, while the heavy losses among civilians and the destruction of thousands of homes in Gaza, where 1.8 million Palestinians are squeezed into a narrow urbanised enclave, have drawn international condemnation.
According to the United Nations, at least 425,000 displaced people in the Gaza Strip are in emergency shelters or staying with host families. Nearly 12,000 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged by Israeli air strikes and heavy shelling. Israel aims to build a network of sensors to try to detect any further tunnel building but it could take months to prove the scheme works and in the meantime re-invasions are possible to destroy tunnels, a senior army officer said.
In Geneva, the United Nations named an international commission of inquiry into possible human rights violations and war crimes by both sides during the conflict. The commission, which will be headed by William Schabas, a Canadian professor of international law, was hailed by Hamas and condemned by Israel. "Hamas welcomes the decision to form an investigation committee into the war crimes committed by the occupation (Israel) against Gaza and it urges that it begin work as soon as possible," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Israel's foreign ministry said the Human Rights Council was biased against Israel. "The Human Rights Council long ago turned into the 'terrorist rights council' and a kangaroo court, whose 'investigations' are pre-determined," Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said in a statement.
"If any more proof were needed, the appointment of the chairman of the panel, whose anti-Israel bias and opinions are known to all, proves beyond any doubt that Israel cannot expect justice from this body, whose report has already been written and all that is left is to decide who will sign off on it."