by Daniel Siryoti, Ariel Kahana, Gadi Golan, Yori Yalon, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
Israeli officials say any deal with Hamas must include the return of Israelis held in Gaza • Hamas demands opening of main cargo crossing with Israel, construction of air, sea ports in Sinai.
A Palestinian rioter on the Israel-Gaza border
Israel on Sunday set out limited goals for truce talks with Hamas, saying the focus is on a proposal to ease the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip in return for Hamas, the terrorist group that rules Gaza, calming its side of the border.
The London-based Arab newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported Monday that Hamas leaders have expressed interest in reaching a gradual arrangement with Israel.
In the first stage of the deal, Hamas would cease its border riot and arson terrorism campaigns in exchange for the full reopening of the Kerem Shalom border crossing, the main cargo crossing into Gaza from Israel, and an expansion of the fishing zone off Gaza's coast, currently 6 nautical miles.
The cease-fire talks, held against the backdrop of several massive flare-ups on the Israel-Gaza border in recent weeks, aim to prevent an escalation that would lead to another war between the Jewish state and the Islamist terrorist group.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the past, in 2008, 2012 and 2014.
Egyptian officials and U.N. Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov have been brokering the truce negotiations, but have not publicly detailed their proposals.
Mladenov and Egyptian officials have spoken generally of a need to improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza, stem cross-border hostilities and reconcile Hamas – which refuses formal peace with Israel – with its Western-backed Palestinian rival Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
"A complete cease-fire [by Hamas] will lead, on Israel’s part, to the reopening of the Kerem Shalom crossing and renewal of the permits given in respect to the fishing zone," an Israeli official said.
He said any eventual broader agreement on Gaza would require a guarantee of the return of the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict and two civilians, both suffering from mental illnesses, who crossed into Gaza in 2014 and 2015 and were captured by the terrorist group.
Construction Minister Yoav Gallant, formerly GOC Southern Command, told Army Radio, "There will be no deal unless the Israelis held in Gaza are returned. Hamas is at the point where it has to change course. They have been backed into a corner and they're looking for ways to achieve a truce."
Hamas has linked the return of the Israeli captives and soldiers' remains to a potential prisoner exchange deal with Israel, something many Israelis oppose.
In the second stage, which would be pursued after the cease-fire proves viable over an unspecified period of time, Israel and Hamas would discuss a prisoner exchange deal as well as developing international economic projects in Gaza.
Several top Hamas officials, including deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri, arrived in Gaza from Egypt on Thursday to discuss the Egyptian offer.
"Hamas has conducted internal meetings that have not yet ended," one senior official, Hussam Badran, told a Gaza radio station.
"The suffering of our people, and the 11-year blockade imposed with no guilt on their [Israel's] part, requires that all Palestinian leaders search for a real solution to this suffering, without giving concessions when it comes to the known and outstanding positions and rights of our people," he said.
Israel imposed a maritime blockade on the Gaza Strip after Hamas seized control of the enclave in a military coup in 2007. Israel maintains the measure is necessary to prevent Hamas from smuggling in weapons and terrorists into Gaza. Egypt also maintains a blockade on Gaza for much the same reason.
Lebanon's al-Akhbar newspaper reported Sunday that as part of the deal, Hamas has demanded that Egypt build an international airport near the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza, as well as a seaport in Ismailia, in the Sinai Peninsula.
Hamas also demands the construction of a power plant in Sinai, so that Gaza's electricity supply, currently partially dependent on Israel, can become independent.
According to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abbas' government is following the negotiations closely.
Palestinian Authority official Ahmed Majdalani criticized the talks, telling the newspaper, "Hamas does not have the authority to represent the Palestinian interest opposite Israel."
A Hamas official told Israel Hayom that Abbas "fears an agreement that would not give the Palestinian Authority back its control of Gaza. This is why he keeps sabotaging the reconciliation efforts [between Hamas and Fatah]."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a special session of the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet Sunday to discuss the proposed truce, but the ministers did not arrive at any conclusive decision.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and other top military officials briefed the ministers on recent developments on the Gaza border.
The Prime Minister's Office said after that meeting that the issue of a cease-fire with Hamas was discussed at length and that, while no decision had been made, "The Israel Defense Forces remain ready for any scenario."
Bereaved families outraged
Meanwhile, the parents of the two soldiers whose remains are held by Hamas in Gaza slammed the government for what they called its failure to ensure the return of their sons' bodies. Golani Brigade Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and Givati Brigade Lt. Hadar Goldin were killed during the 2014 war and Hamas has held their remains since.
At a special press conference on Sunday, Shaul's mother, Zehava, said, "In a meeting two months ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu yelled at us and called us liars. … This taught me never again to believe [the government's] promises and do everything within my power to ensure our boys come home.
"I hereby inform the government and the prime minister that I will not rest until Oron is home. I urge the ministers: Don't negotiate with Hamas and don’t sign any agreement with this heinous organization. … I also urge the public to join our moral fight and stop the government from signing an agreement with Hamas unless it is conditioned upon the boys' return. This may be our last window of opportunity. Do not let the government abandon them."
In response, the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying, "Prime Minister Netanyahu never raised his voice at bereaved families, nor has he ever accused them of anything. This is true for the Shaul family too. The prime minister will continue to spare no effort to ensure the boys' return."
Goldin's father, Simcha, said at the press conference that "Netanyahu's words are hollow. The terminology we're hearing now – a broad framework agreement – is nothing but a [media spin].
"The truth is that there is no German mediator, no Qatari channel, no Egyptian intelligence officer engaged in efforts to return the soldiers and civilians. They don’t exist because the prime minister has become a senior partner in reaching an agreement of surrender."
Goldin's mother, Leah, urged Netanyahu to "learn from [U.S. President Donald] Trump. Before the talks, before the agreements, he forced the North Korean leader to return American POWs and MIAs. Learn from that – there's no deal in exchange for nothing.
"Netanyahu has to say, today, that in any agreement, the return of soldiers and civilians must come first. In the heat of the Middle East, agreements signed on ice are meaningless. … We will not tolerate a betrayal of Israeli society's values."
Also on Sunday, several media outlets reported that in a past telephone conversation, the prime minister's wife, Sara, had told the Goldins they were "ungrateful."
According to the reports, Sara Netanyahu was upset because Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) had been invited to Hadar Goldin's memorial service. She reportedly told his mother that the Goldin family's "connections with to my husband's [political] rivals could hurt the prime minister's efforts" to secure his return.
The Netanyahu family vehemently denied the reports, saying,"Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul are always in Sara Netanyahu's and the prime minister's hearts. Any statement to the contrary is untrue and does not reflect the connection that was created with the family."
Daniel Siryoti, Ariel Kahana, Gadi Golan, Yori Yalon, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
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