Egypt maintains that negotiations for a long-term cease-fire in Gaza will take place in Cairo as planned, despite earlier reports that Israel’s renewed bombardment of the Gaza Strip on Friday had thwarted Egypt’s already floundering attempts to broker peace.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry asserted that neither Palestinian nor Israeli officials had declined the invitation to meet in Egypt on Saturday to resume discussions.
When a UN-brokered 72-hour humanitarian truce was declared early Friday morning, Palestinian and Israeli officials had agreed to convene in Cairo to continue negotiations on Saturday. But after Israel’s announcement that Hamas had kidnapped one of its soldiers and hence resumed its assault on Gaza, the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad said that Egypt contacted its leaders and announced it would delay talks on a long-term truce, reported the Agence France-Presse (AFP).
An Egyptian official refuted those statements, however, according to the state-owned Middle East News Agency (MENA). The unnamed source added that the delegations from both sides of the conflict are expected to work together toward a sustained cease-fire in preparation for the Cairo talks.
Egypt is committed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s stance that a cease-fire needs to be in place before the talks commence, Shoukry declared, as reported in the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram.
Despite these conflicting reports, by Friday afternoon sources confirmed that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is still expected to lead a 12-person delegation to Cairo on Saturday, which would include five Hamas representatives, two Islamic Jihad members, and one representative from four other groups, including Fatah, the PLO, the Democratic Liberation Front Party and Hizb al-Shaab, according to MENA. Abbas said he would bring the delegation to Egypt “no matter what the circumstances are.”
Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the president of the Council of the European Union, is also scheduled to arrive in Cairo on Saturday for his first official visit and to push for the Egyptian initiative to end the assault on Gaza. According to MENA, he would meet with Sisi, Shoukry and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb. US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns is also expected to attend Saturday’s meetings.
At least 40 Palestinians were killed and 200 injured early on Friday when Israel resumed its air and ground assault on the southern Gaza Strip, very close to the Rafah border crossing, abruptly breaking the temporary cease-fire only two hours after it began.
After the cease-fire had been announced, Egypt briefly opened the Rafah crossing to allow 120 Palestinians and Egyptians living in Gaza to enter Sinai, according to a source at the border. When the Israeli assault resumed they attempted to head back home, only to find that Egypt had closed the border again.
A BBC report cited Hamas spokesperson Iyad al-Bozom as saying that Egypt had closed the Rafah crossing to two buses early in the day as its passengers were endangered by the intense bombardment, which is hitting very close to the Egyptian side of the border.
However, injured civilians are reportedly still being allowed to leave Gaza through the crossing.
Since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge 25 days ago, at least 1,500 Palestinians have been killed, the vast majority of them civilians, and more than 8,400 wounded . According to Reuters, 61 Israeli soldiers have died. The Palestinian death toll in the current crisis has now surpassed that of the deadly three-week long Operation Cast Lead of 2008-2009, which claimed some 1,440 Palestinian lives.
Israeli officials accused Hamas of breaking the truce, claiming that it resumed shelling on the strip after Palestinians kidnapped Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin.
Hamas, which governs Gaza, claimed Israel announced the kidnapping as a pretext to break the cease-fire.
“Israel announcing the kidnapping of one of its soldiers is an attempt to deceive and justify its retreat from the cease-fire, as well as to cover up its massacres, especially in Rafah,” Hamas spokesperson Sameh Abu Zouhry said, according to MENA.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Cairo-based senior member of Hamas’ political bureau, said that the Israeli soldier was captured before the cease-fire deal was brokered.
Reuters cited media reports that asserted shelling began after Hamas fighters exchanged fire with Israeli soldiers who were targeting tunnels. The United States responded with a statement that Hamas attacks would be a “barbaric” violation of the cease-fire, while White House spokesperson Josh Earnest called on Hamas to release the captured Israeli soldier, Reuters reported.
Media outlets reported that Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni wrote on her Facebook page that the Israel Defense Forces were justifiably now operating on the ground “with the full backing of us all.”
“Hamas has paid, and will yet pay a heavy price,” Livni said. “If it was not yet clear enough to everyone, now the world knows who is responsible for the destruction and blood” in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said Thursday that Israel would not consent to a cease-fire deal until its military had successfully demolished all tunnels leading from Gaza into Israel, an operation that Israel says would take several more days.
Global condemnation and calls for a cease-fire intensified after shelling targeted a UN-run school in a Gazan refugee camp, leaving 15 dead. Humanitarian aid agencies have requested US$369 million to address the crisis in Gaza, and have called for safe access to all areas.
Late on Thursday, Egypt allowed 104 injured Palestinians to enter the country through the intermittently open Rafah border crossing to receive medical treatment in Egyptian hospitals. Egypt has been harshly criticized for its reluctance to keep the crossing open.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah issued a statement on Friday that the world’s “silence on Israeli war crimes is inexcusable,” reported the Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Gaza officials told MENA that ambulances and emergency response teams were having difficulty reaching the bombardment site on Friday, adding that all telecommunications to the area have been cut off.