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Israel-Hamas Cease-Fire Holding, Truce Talks to Open in Cairo

  • VOA News

Israeli and Palestinian delegations are in Cairo for truce talks as a 72 hour cease-fire in Gaza appears to be holding for a second day.

U.S. and U.N. diplomats will join the talks on a longer term truce. The discussions also are expected to deal with underlying issues that led to a month of Israeli airstrikes in response to Hamas rocket attacks.

No one expects the talks to be easy. Israel is demanding that Gaza be demilitarized, while Hamas insists Israel and Egypt end their long-standing blockades of Gaza.

Gaza residents took advantage of the calm to visit shattered homes and stores, looking to salvage whatever is left of their lives. Many neighborhoods are unrecognizable piles of ruins.

More than 1,800 Palestinians were killed over the last month, mostly civilians. Sixty-four Israeli solders and three civilians died.

Israeli ground forces have retreated from Gaza, but remain on the defensive.

In New York, Jordan has circulated a Security Council resolution calling for a permanent cease-fire, lifting Israel's blockade of Gaza, and a global effort to rebuild the area.

Residents skeptical

Israelis and Palestinians are hopeful yet skeptical about the truce. Several attempted cease-fires have failed, including last Friday, when what was supposed to be a three-day truce ended in just two hours.

The shelling devastated Gaza's infrastructure, leveling residential buildings, schools and businesses. As the cease-fire took hold Tuesday morning, many Gazans left shelters to find rubble where their homes once stood.

And, just minutes before the truce took hold early Tuesday, both Israel and Hamas engaged in a display of firepower, seemingly determined to have the last word before putting down their weapons.

Sirens wailed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as Hamas fired 16 rockets over the border, while Israeli warplanes staged at least five air strikes on Gaza.

Inshirah Masser walked over piles of debris that used to be her home in the Gazan city of Beit Hanoun, unsure where her family will live now.

"Look at our houses and our children, everything is destroyed, four apartments, all my children are stranded in the schools, where are we supposed to go?" Masser asked.

After seeking shelter in a U.N. school, Ibrahim El Zaim worried how long the cease-fire would be maintained. By the time he returned home after the last short-lived truce, shelling had already begun.

"I heard there was a truce and I hope it is a long-lasting one because they said there was a truce before and we left, but 5 minutes after we got home, the air strikes started," El Zaim said. "God-willing, this time they will be true to their word and this would be a real truce so we can be safe in our homes."

The 72-hour break in fighting isn't enough for Israeli resident Yaakov Argentaro, who said a shell hit his home shortly before the cease-fire.

"It's my daughter's room behind me. It was directly hit in the salvo that was shot [by Gaza militants] a few minutes before 8 a.m.," Argentaro said.

"Since we, as a community, have been experiencing it for the past 15 years, as far as we are concerned, it's intolerable," Argentaro said. "I need a cease-fire for 15 years. If there won't be a cease-fire for 15 years, as far as I'm concerned it's not a cease-fire. We live in fear."

Cease-fire terms

According to the 72-hour truce brokered by Egypt, Israel and Hamas will hold indirect talks in Cairo on a formula for a long-term cease-fire. But the gaps are wide.

Israel said it wants the disarming of Hamas, which has fired thousands of rockets into Israel in recent weeks. It said any loosening of the blockade must still ensure that Hamas does not import weapons or weapons-producing material.

Hamas is demanding Israel withdraw its forces from Gaza, end its blockade of the coastal enclave, release Palestinian prisoners, and provide other assistance for residents who already faced a humanitarian crisis before the fighting began.

Israel has also come under international criticism for a Sunday airstrike in the southern Gaza town of Rafah that killed at least 10 civilians who had sought shelter in a United Nations school.

The U.S. State Department on Monday urged both parties to "completely" respect the latest truce effort, saying it could help lead to a more durable solution.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also praised the truce, saying talks should commence "as soon as possible" and deal with "underlying issues."

War crimes charge

Meanwhile, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki, a representative of the Palestinian Authority (PA), denounced what he called Israel's "atrocities" against Gaza to International Criminal Court prosecutors at The Hague.

After meeting International Criminal Court prosecutors on Tuesday, al-Malki told reporters that “everything that has happened in the last 28 days is clear evidence of war crimes committed by Israel, amounting to crimes against humanity."

He said, "There is no difficulty for us to show or build the case. Evidence is there ... Israel is in clear violation of international law.”

Malki visited The Hague shortly after Israel and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza entered a 72-hour truce mediated by Egypt.

He called for a thorough investigation into actions on both sides of the conflict.

"If it really entails actions committed by certain Palestinian groups, then we are ready to accept that consequences, absolutely, but nothing is compared, nothing is compared, nothing is compared to the atrocities, the carnage, committed by Israel against the innocent Palestinians in Gaza," al-Malki said.

The Palestinian government would have to join the ICC for the international legal body to review the allegations.

Malki said the Palestinians aimed to formally joint the ICC to open the legal avenue for an investigation. He said he had discussed with prosecutors a timeline to apply, though the duality of the PA governing the West Bank and its political rival Hamas ruling Gaza may impede the application process.

Israel and the Palestinians traded accusations of war crimes during the Israeli military onslaught into Gaza, during which Hamas kept up rocket fire into the Jewish state, while defending their own actions as consistent with international law.

Last week, the United Nations launched an inquiry into human rights violations and crimes alleged to have been committed by Israel during the offensive given the far higher toll of civilian death and physical destruction on the Palestinian side.

Israel declined public comment, but a senior Israeli official who asked to be identified said any ICC legal action against Israel over the Gaza conflict would prompt an Israeli counter-suit at the ICC against the Palestinians.

But given that neither Israel nor the Palestinians are members of the ICC, the court would have no jurisdiction over Gaza at this time.

This could be granted in a U.N. Security Council resolution, but Israel's main ally, the United States, would have the power to veto any such proposal.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AP and AFP.

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