by Ariel Kahana, Mati Tuchfeld, Nikki Guttman and Eli Leon
"If the calm on the border is violated, Israel will mount a forceful response," official warns
Hamas leaders on Thursday urged Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to arrive at the border with Israel on Friday and protest en masse, as they have been doing since the onset of the group's border riot campaign four months ago.
The call came despite the fact Gaza's rulers are engaged in indirect cease-fire negotiations with Israel, meant to prevent the hostilities of recent weeks from escalating further.
Israeli officials said Hamas' actions on the ground would determine whether negotiations could continue, saying, "If the calm on the border is violated, Israel will mount a forceful, unrestricted response.
Arab media reported Thursday that the cease-fire agreement Egypt is trying to negotiate between Israel and Hamas includes a one-year truce as well as several measures meant to alleviate the dire economic situation in Gaza, such as establishing a "naval corridor" between Cyprus and Gaza through which goods could be delivered to the enclave, as well as the construction of a port in the Sinai Peninsula, which would operate under Israeli security supervision.
An Egyptian source said that if the truce proves viable, negotiations will be held to extend it to four years.
He further said a broader agreement would include a prisoner exchange deal, under which Hamas will return the bodies of two IDF soldiers as well as two living Israeli civilians, and Israel will release hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners.
Hamas denied that a prisoner exchange deal was in the works, saying it opposes linking a truce deal to a potential prisoner exchange.
Israeli officials denied that the current talks extended beyond a bilateral cease-fire, and said any Arab reports suggesting Israel has agreed to a naval corridor are false.
An official privy to the current talks told Israel Hayom, "The truce would have to hold for a considerable period of time for Israel to discuss any humanitarian projects in which it may be involved. This would also depend on prisoner exchange negotiations."
Bennett, who over the past week has accused Lieberman of being "too lenient" on terrorism, said that the defense minister's policy of trying to communicate directly with the Palestinians in Gaza in an effort to undermine Hamas' regime was "hollow and senseless."
"The idea that Israel can persuade the public in Gaza to topple Hamas' government is detached from reality," Bennett said. "Has Lieberman ask himself how many years it would take to topple Hamas by the power of persuasion? Who does he think will pay the price for the increase in terrorism in the meantime?
"Lieberman's message has been well received: Terrorism pays. Hamas fires rockets at us and Israel caves. The Israel-Hamas deal Lieberman is pushing is a serious and irresponsible mistake that will allow Hamas to accelerate rocket production," Bennett blasted.
A statement by Lieberman's Yisrael Beytenu party retorted, "As Bennett has often been absent from cabinet meetings about Gaza, he is unfamiliar with the details involved."
The party went on to characterize the bickering between the two as "an argument between Lieberman's responsible right-wing positions and the messianic and populist Right represented by Bennett, which supports a binational state and the occupation of Gaza."
Another minister also criticized the deal taking shape saying that "Israel has effectively capitulated to them [Hamas]. Israel is giving them supplies, power, money and assurances for a naval corridor, but we are getting nothing in return. Our captives have not been released and all we are getting is a truce that Hamas can decide to violate at will."
Senior Jerusalem officials insisted Thursday that no long-term agreement would be reached with Hamas unless the Israeli captives were returned.
Ariel Kahana, Mati Tuchfeld, Nikki Guttman and Eli Leon
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