Egyptian attempts to broker an end to a month-long war between Israel and Hamas militants collapsed in heavy fighting Tuesday, with Palestinian militants firing dozens of rockets and Israel responding with airstrikes across the Gaza Strip.
Accusing Gaza Islamists of breaking the truce, Israel promptly recalled its negotiators from truce talks in Cairo, leaving the fate of Egyptian-brokered efforts to secure a lasting peace hanging in the balance.
Israel said three rockets were fired out of Gaza nearly eight hours before a ceasefire – extended by a day on Monday – was due to expire. Later barrages took aim at a number of cities and one missile hit open land in the greater Tel Aviv area, without causing damage or casualties.
Gaza witnesses said Israeli aircraft launched 35 attacks, including one on a house in Gaza City, where hospital officials said a woman and a two-year-old girl were killed. A third unidentified person also died in the strike, officials said.
The fatalities were the first since a temporary truce was reached last Wednesday.
Thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in neighborhoods of eastern Gaza City on Tuesday, carrying bags of clothes, pillows and mattresses after the renewed Israeli air strikes, witnesses said.
An AFP reporter saw hundreds of Palestinians streaming out of Shejaiya, an area devastated by more than a month of fighting between Israel and the Islamist movement which rules Hamas.
Thousands more were leaving the Zeitun and Shaaf areas, alarmed by a series of explosions, and heading toward shelters in U.N. schools, the witnesses said.
Egyptian security officials said Egypt was still pressing the two sides to agree on a cease-fire. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The breakdown dealt a tough blow to nearly a week of Egyptian-led diplomacy meant to end the heaviest fighting between Israel and Hamas since Hamas fighters seized control of Gaza in 2007.
More than 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed, according to Palestinian and U.N. officials, and tens of thousands of people are homeless.
Hamas is seeking an end to a seven-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has ravaged Gaza’s economy, while Israel wants guarantees that Hamas will disarm.
In nearly a week of indirect talks, Egypt appears to have made little headway in resolving the differences. Late Monday, it secured a 24-hour extension to a temporary truce to allow more time for a last-ditch attempt to reach a longer-term deal.
An Egyptian compromise proposal calls for easing the blockade, but not lifting it altogether and opening the territory’s air and seaports as Hamas has demanded.
While the plan does not require Hamas to give up its weapons, it would give Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted by Hamas in 2007, a foothold back in Gaza running border crossings and overseeing internationally-backed reconstruction.
In Cairo, members of the Palestinian delegation, which is comprised of various factions, said no progress had been made in Tuesday’s talks. Yet some held out hope that the Egyptians would still succeed.
“Israel insisted during the talks on disarming the factions in Gaza, and that created huge difficulties during the talks,” said Kais Abdelkarim, a Palestinian negotiator.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Azzam al-Ahmad, said the Palestinians had submitted a final proposal in hopes of reaching a breakthrough. “We gave the Egyptians our final position. We are waiting for them to come back with a response,” he said.
But Khaled al-Batsch, a representative of the Islamic Jihad militant group, said the talks had collapsed and the Palestinian delegation would leave “starting tomorrow.” He blamed “Israel stubbornness” for failure of the talks but added: “Egypt is still trying to bring back the negotiators and we hope it succeeds.”
Pessimism over fate of truce talks
Hamas’ chief negotiator, Izzat Risheq, was pessimistic.
“Egyptian mediators are waiting for an answer from the enemy delegation to the response of the Palestinian delegation,” he wrote on Twitter. “Even at 12 o’clock, the end of the deadline for the truce … I do not think there will be an answer.”
Hamas finds itself pressured by both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to accept a less than perfect deal with Israel, but needs to show the people of Gaza that the enormous sacrifices they endured in the fighting were not in vain.
In an apparent attempt to pressure Hamas, Egypt said early Monday it would co-host an international fundraising conference for Gaza – but only if a deal is reached first. That appears to play into the hands of the Palestinian Authority.
The disagreements have focused around the lifting of the blockade, with Hamas pushing for far more dramatic concessions than Israel is willing to offer.
The latest round of Gaza fighting was precipitated by massive Israeli arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank in the aftermath of the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June. Their deaths were followed by the slaying of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem in what was a likely revenge attack.