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Progress Reported in Gaza Truce Talks; Palestinian Toll Exceeds 1,000

Israel continues its military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as diplomats in Cairo suggest tentative progress in their efforts to reach a cease-fire.

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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 15, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 14 -- Diplomats said Wednesday they were closer to bringing about a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, but fighting in the coastal territory persisted as the Palestinian death toll in the 19-day war passed 1,000.

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Delegates from Hamas, meeting in Cairo with Egyptian mediators, said that the Islamist movement was willing to agree to a truce with Israel but that obstacles remained. Points of contention included whether a cease-fire would be temporary, when Israel would reopen checkpoints and who might patrol Gaza's border with Egypt to prevent smugglers from resupplying Hamas with weapons, officials involved in the talks said.

Details remained under wraps, but diplomats in the region said they were pushing for an immediate cease-fire, to be followed by further talks on border security and other issues.

Israel said it would send an emissary to Cairo on Thursday to hear details of a truce proposal that Egypt and Hamas have hammered out in recent days. Egyptian officials expressed optimism that a deal was near.

"We're working with Hamas, and we're working with the Israeli side," Hossam Zaki, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, told the BBC. "We hope to reach an outcome soon."

Israeli officials, however, were more cautious. They said Israel would not withdraw from Gaza unless Hamas first agreed to a long-term cease-fire. "Israel will not accept a situation where Hamas gets a temporary period of quiet just to rearm and regroup and that ends with further rocket barrages on Israel," Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, told the Reuters news service.

Disagreements also persist within Israel's political leadership. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni favor a quick end to the fighting, arguing that the war has dealt Hamas a severe setback and that there is little further to be gained, according to Israeli media reports. But Olmert, whose term ends next month, has resisted.

European diplomats said the framework for a truce was emerging but predicted that it could take days to win a final agreement. They said they were pressing for a deal to be struck before Tuesday, when Barack Obama is scheduled to be sworn in as president in Washington.

"My perception is we are very close to reaching a cease-fire," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "They are very close, but still there is some work to be done."

While some Hamas delegates hinted at a breakthrough, others took a harder line. Salah al-Bardawil, a member of the Hamas negotiating team, said he doubted that Israel would be willing to withdraw its tanks and troops.

"What can we do? They are killing us and perpetuating massacres," he said at a brief news conference in Cairo. "You cannot blame someone who is being killed."

Bardawil said that Hamas negotiators had reached an understanding with Egyptian mediators but that it remained to be seen how Israel would respond. "There is no disagreement with the Egyptian leadership. The issue is differences over how to deal with the Zionist enemy," he said, referring to Israel.


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