Negotiators in Cairo were pushing Israel and the Palestinians to put a decisive end to weeks of bloodshed in Gaza Monday as the clock ticked down on another temporary truce.
As the death toll in the war-torn Gaza Strip pushed over 2,000, Egyptian negotiators were pressing both sides to reach agreement before a midnight (2100 GMT) deadline which will mark the end of a five-day truce.
The warring parties have less than three hours 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 more than 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 temporary truces.
As millions in and around Gaza enjoyed an eighth day of calm brought on by two back-to-back truces, tensions were once again on the rise over fears the fighting could start again.
But a senior member of the Palestinian delegation insisted there had been “progress”, with both sides demonstrating “a great degree” of flexibility.
“The Egyptians have submitted a draft that was met with a great degree of flexibility by both sides, the Israelis and Palestinians. There has been progress,” he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity, saying the draft adopted the Palestinian demands, including that of an “airport and (sea) port”.
“Both delegations are now consulting with their leaderships,” he said.
– Netanyahu warning –
As the midnight deadline neared, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would hit back hard if Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza resume.
“We are ready for all scenarios… the army is preparing for a very strong response if the firing (of rockets) resumes,” he said.
“In the turbulent Middle East, you need a mixture of force and patience and the IDF (army) has a lot of both.”
Ahead of the deadline, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was travelling to Doha for talks with exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and the Qatari emir.
Qatar is a key backer of Hamas, the de facto ruler of Gaza.
As diplomatic efforts intensified, Gaza’s health ministry said the death toll from the fighting rose above 2,000 as more people died of their wounds.
The figures showed 2,016 people had been killed and 10,196 wounded.
Among the dead were 541 children, 250 women and 95 elderly men.
Separately, the Israeli army confirmed that five of its 64 dead soldiers were killed by “friendly fire”.
Despite concern over the looming deadline, the streets of Gaza City were bustling with women and children shopping for food as men sat outside in the shade.
– Sticking to demands –
With the negotiations in their final stretch, meetings at the Egyptian intelligence headquarters resumed at 1200 GMT, but there was little indication that either side was willing to back down on its demands.
“The fifth day of the ceasefire and the negotiations between the resistance and the Zionist enemy ends today,” Hamas’s exiled deputy leader Mussa Abu Marzuk wrote on Facebook shortly before the talks began.
“No positive results until now. Everything will be decided on the ground.”
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.
The talks are centred on an Egyptian proposal for a lasting ceasefire, which postpones discussions on the thorniest issues, such as Hamas demands for a port and airport in Gaza, for another month.
Negotiations on exchanging the remains of two Israeli soldiers for the release of Palestinian prisoners would also be delayed for a month.
Following talks with Meshaal in Doha, Abbas will travel to Cairo later in the week to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a Palestinian official told AFP.
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 in Gaza.
On Sunday, Israel said it had lifted a total ban on fishing which had been in place since July 8, allowing boats to go out to sea for up to three nautical miles.
Down at the fishing port, a few fishermen could be seen taking their boats out for an early catch, although they kept close to shore, well within the new limit, an AFP correspondent said.