, GAZA CITY, Aug 16 – Palestinian worshippers attended weekly prayers, relatively confident of their safety Friday as a fragile ceasefire held for a second day and tough talks loomed on a more lasting peace.
For the first time since fighting began between Israel and Hamas on July 8, residents in Gaza City were able to attend the main weekly Friday prayers without fear of being killed. At least 1,962 Palestinians and 67 people on the Israeli side have died in the conflict.
In the Shati refugee camp, a few hundred men prayed in the rubble of one mosque, lining up their prayer mats directly under the teetering remains of the minaret that looked as if it could collapse at any moment, after around two thirds of the mosque was pulverised.
Dozens of mosques have been damaged in the fighting. The imam at the mosque in the Shati camp called during the sermon for the destruction of Israel. Israel justified striking civilian targets such as schools and hospitals on the grounds that Hamas used them to launch rocket attacks.
“We must do our prayers with or without the existence of a mosque, and people are praying under the rubble,” said Ismael Redwan, who lives close by.
Egyptian mediators won a new five-day ceasefire late Wednesday to give Israeli and Palestinian negotiators more time to thrash out a longer-term truce.
The ceasefire got off to a rocky start in its first few hours, but Israeli officials said it had held into a second day Friday.
Negotiations are expected to resume in Cairo on Saturday evening, as Palestinian and Israeli negotiators consult with their political leaderships about the parameters for an eventual long-term truce.
Gaza’s Islamist de facto rulers Hamas, who have representation on the Palestinian negotiating team, insist there can be no return to peace without a lifting of Israel’s eight-year blockade of the beleaguered coastal enclave.
But Israel’s right wing government under pressure from constituents from Gaza border towns that have endured persistent rocket fire from the territory is refusing to countenance any major reconstruction effort without full demilitarisation.
“Agreement on understandings will only be reached if Israel’s security interests are guaranteed,” a government official told AFP.
“Israel insists that understandings will be reached only if they clearly express security arrangements.”
The army says Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have launched more than 3,500 rockets since July 8. More than 2,790 have hit Israel and around 600 have been shot down.
Israel’s security cabinet met for a second day Friday to hammer out a negotiating position for the next round of talks, media said.
There was no formal statement from the secretive body.
The recent fighting has also exposed new signs of strain in Israel’s relations with its US ally.
Washington denied a report that the White House was tightening the reins on the routine delivery of military aid to Israel over concerns about the proportionality of its military action in Gaza.
But the State Department acknowledged that arms shipments were being kept under review, saying the process was “by no means unusual” given the crisis in Gaza.
Israel secured supplies of ammunition from the Pentagon last month without the approval of the White House or the State Department, The Wall Street Journal reported.
President Barack Obama’s administration, caught off guard as it tried to restrain Israel’s campaign in Gaza, has since tightened controls on arms shipments to Israel, the newspaper said, quoting US and Israeli officials.
The daily said Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a particularly tense phone call on Wednesday and that the Israeli leader wanted US security assurances in return for a long-term deal with Hamas.
The chairman of the Israeli parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Likud MP Zeev Elkin, said that spats between close friends were normal and the underlying Israel-US relationship remained sound.
“Differences of opinion are legitimate and sometimes necessary,” he told public radio.
But Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul-general in New York, told the channel that Elkin and others who saw no danger signals were like “people on the Titanic saying how lovely the buffet is”.
The Wall Street Journal said Netanyahu had essentially “pushed the administration aside”, reducing US officials to bystanders instead of their usual role as mediators.
Relations between Washington and Israel were already strained by the collapse of US-brokered peace talks earlier this year that Obama’s administration had made a top foreign policy priority.
In Jordan, the only Arab country apart from Egypt to sign a 1994 peace treaty with Israel, hundreds of demonstrators urged solidarity with the people of Gaza and called for the treaty to be revoked.