GAZA CITY, August 18 – The Gaza death toll rose over 2,000 Monday as the clock ticked towards a midnight deadline and negotiators in Cairo strove to hammer out a decisive end to weeks of bloodshed.
As millions in and around Gaza enjoyed an eighth day of calm brought on by two back to back truce agreements, tensions were once again on the rise ahead of a new deadline ending a five day ceasefire which expires at 2100 GMT.
But there was little sign of any workable consensus emerging from ongoing talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Cairo who have just 12 hours to left to either reach an agreement, accept a further extension or risk a resumption of the fighting which has wreaked destruction across the densely-populated Mediterranean coastal enclave.
The aim is to broker a long-term arrangement to halt over a month of bloody fighting which erupted on July 8 although both sides have largely lowered their guns since August 4 thanks to a series of brief truce arrangements.
Ahead of the deadline, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to travel to Doha where he was to meet with exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal on Tuesday and also hold talks with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.
Qatar is a key backer of Hamas, the de facto rulers of Gaza.
Meanwhile, Gaza’s health ministry said the death toll rose over 2,000 as more people succumbed to injuries sustained since the fighting began.
The figures showed 2,016 people had been killed and another 10,196 wounded.
Among the dead were 541 children, 250 women and 95 elderly men – or around 44 percent of the total number of victims.
Separately, the Israeli army confirmed that five of 64 soldiers killed in combat had died as a result of “friendly fire”.
– No backing down –
Despite the concern over the looming deadline, the streets of Gaza City and the northern town of Jabaliya were relatively full, bustling with women and children shopping for food, as men sat outside in the shade, chatting or watching the world go by.
Elderly people could be seen hitching a ride on a donkey cart, as pedestrians picked their way past piles of rubbish and debris from damage of the war.
As the negotiations entered their final stretch, with meetings at the Egyptian intelligence headquarters resuming around 0900 GMT, there was little indication that either side was willing to back down on its demands.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel would only accept an agreement which contained “a clear answer” to its security needs, while Hamas has insisted there will be no deal without an end to Israel’s eight year blockade on Gaza.
Following talks with Meshaal in Doha, Abbas will travel to Cairo on Friday for talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a day later, a Palestinian official told AFP.
In Israel, in absence of concrete information coming from the talks, most commentators were pessimistic about the warring sides reaching an agreement by midnight, saying the gaps are simply too big.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, a hardline member of the security cabinet, said Israel should abandon its attempt to talk, albeit indirectly, with Hamas.
“We have to stop the negotiations with Hamas immediately and take our fate into our own hands, based on very simple parameters: humanitarian aid ‘yes’, terror ‘no’,” he told army radio.
“We do not conduct negotiations, not even indirectly, with people who use terror against us directly.”
– Unilateral easing –
In an indication Israel was shifting its thinking away from a negotiated truce agreement, it began implementing a series of unilateral measures to ease conditions for the population in Gaza.
On Sunday, Israel said it had lifted a total ban on fishing which had been in place since July 8, allowing fishermen to go out to sea for up to three nautical miles, as a “sign of goodwill,” a government official told AFP.
Down at the fishing port, a few fishermen could be seen taking their boats out for an early catch, although they kept close to the shore, well within the new limit imposed by Israel, an AFP correspondent said.
The Cairo talks are centred on an Egyptian proposal which calls for a lasting ceasefire from midnight, and postpones discussions on the thorniest issues, such as Hamas’ demands for a seaport and airport in Gaza, for another month.
Negotiations over exchanging the remains of two Israeli soldiers for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in would also be delayed for a month.
Meanwhile, Norway, which coordinates international efforts to send financial aid to the Palestinians, said a donors’ conference to discuss the reconstruction of Gaza would only take place after a lasting ceasefire was inked.
“We cannot expect the international community to finance reconstruction once again” without prior conditions, Norwegian Foreign Minister Boerge Brende said in a statement, calling for an end to Israel’s blockade and security for civilians on both sides of the border.