NEW: Israel is willing to unconditionally extend the 72-hour cease-fire, an official says
Hamas spokesman says "no basis for the media news about the extension of truce"
"Responsibility for this tragedy belongs with Hamas," Israeli Prime Minister says
Meanwhile, Gaza residents survey widespread damage with water and electricity scarce
So far, there’s no peace deal in Cairo, but there’s no fighting in Gaza, either.
A day into a 72-hour cease-fire, many Palestinians returned to devastation in Gaza as officials from Israel and the Palestinian side – including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Palestine Liberation Organization – gathered in Egypt for talks about how to make the truce last.
From Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the performance of his country’s troops, again blamed Hamas for civilian casualties and expressed hopes that the Cairo talks could set the stage for a broader peace.
The Palestinian and Israeli delegations – working through Egyptian intermediaries in Cairo – had yet to reach agreement on extending the cease-fire that has brought at least a temporary pause in the fighting, Qais Abdelkarim, a Palestinian delegate who is part of the negotiating team, told CNN Wednesday.
In a text message to CNN, a senior Egyptian official described the talks as “still an experimental discussion in order to consolidate the cease-fire.”
But Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, told Hamas-run Al-Aqsa television that talk of an extension of the truce for another 72 hours was nothing more than that – talk.
“There is no basis for the media news about the extension of truce,” he said.
An Israeli government official told CNN on Thursday that Israel is willing to unconditionally extend the cease-fire.
“The current one is unconditional, and from our point of view, it can be extended unconditionally,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.
Israel is calling for Hamas, the militant Islamic group that runs Gaza, to disarm. Hamas, meanwhile, wants an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, a measure Israel says is necessary to stop weapons being smuggled in.
Among the issues being raised, a German diplomatic source told CNN, is a proposal to reopen the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt under the auspices of a European Union mission. EU officials operated a similar mission from 2005 to 2007, when Hamas assumed power in Gaza.
Egypt closed the Rafah crossing after the country’s military ousted Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsy. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt’s new government has declared a terrorist group.
“I’m very glad that we have, at least temporarily, achieved a cease-fire. The question now is, how do we build on this temporary cessation of violence and move forward in a sustainable way?” U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday.
“I have no sympathy for Hamas. I have great sympathy for ordinary people who are struggling within Gaza.”
The latest Gaza conflict is the third in less than six years. Previous cease-fires have brought calm for a matter of months or years but failed to tackle the broader issues.
“The problem is that – regardless of the blame game that’s taking place right now and it usually does happen after every Gaza escalation – it’s the people of Gaza who are suffering from the siege, from a disastrous humanitarian situation, civilian deaths, destruction,” said Nasser Judeh, the foreign minister of Jordan, which borders Israel and the West Bank.
“I think we all have to collectively think about how we can rescue them from this,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
Dire humanitarian situation
Around 520,000 Gaza residents were displaced during the conflict, according to the United Nations. That’s about 29% of the territory’s 1.8 million inhabitants.
Some of them returned to their neighborhoods after the cease-fire began Tuesday, in many cases finding rubble where their homes had once stood.
The United Nations estimates that more than 10,000 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged in Gaza, an already crowded and impoverished territory.
Nearly 1,900 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza during the conflict, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. It’s unclear how many were militants. The United Nations has estimated that at least 70% of the dead were civilians.
For many Palestinians, rebuilding their shattered lives is still a distant goal. Their immediate challenge is to secure water, food and shelter.
Running water is scarce, and there are only about two to four hours of electricity a day, the U.N. says.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has been sheltering about 270,000 people in its school buildings in Gaza.
“We will be very closely following not only the needs of people who stay at our schools, but also those who are returning to their home and may find themselves in very difficult situations in the days and weeks to come,” Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, told CNN.
Israel says mission accomplished
In a news conference Wednesday, Netanyahu praised the performance of Israeli soldiers and showed video he said demonstrated the Israeli military’s efforts to spare civilians.
“I salute you, the entire nation salutes you,” he said in Hebrew.
He also said the country “deeply regrets” civilian deaths but blamed Hamas for putting civilians in harm’s way and using their deaths as “PR fodder.”
“The responsibility for this tragedy belongs with Hamas,” he said.
Netanyahu spoke a day after the Israeli military finished pulling its troops out of Gaza, saying it had achieved its mission of taking out the threat posed by Hamas’ network of tunnels, some of which ran underneath the border and were used by militants to mount attacks.
The Israel Defense Forces says it estimates about 900 militants were killed in the Gaza operation. IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said it was a preliminary figure based on field reports from troops returning from battle.
Israeli officials have said 64 Israeli soldiers and three civilians in Israel died in the conflict.
Opinion polls in Israel, where the public was particularly alarmed by the tunnel threat, suggested strong support for the offensive against Hamas.
Militants fired about one third of their estimated arsenal of 10,000 rockets, the IDF said, with 2,303 of them striking Israel. The Israeli military says its troops destroyed another third of the rocket supply, leaving roughly 3,300 more in Gaza.
Now, the key to any talks, according to Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev, is that Hamas must disarm.
But Nachman Shai, an opposition member of the Israeli parliament, said the situation wasn’t quite so simple.
“I’m not sure that we accomplished the mission,” he told CNN. “I think we have to do much more. If you ask me, the next phase in this mission is to build new relations between us and the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu intimated that the decision by some Arab states to forgo support for Hamas in its fight with Israel could presage a shift in the long debate over peace in the Middle East. He said he agreed with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the apparent realignment could present opportunities to use the Cairo talks to broaden the discussion.
“I think he’s right that there are opportunities now, perhaps opportunities that we’ve not seen before with the realignment of important parties in the Middle East, to be able to fashion a new reality, one more conducive to the end of violence, the establishment of calm, sustainable peace, or at least a sustainable quiet that can lead to other things,” the Israeli Prime Minister said.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat stressed to CNN on Wednesday the conflict would never be solved through violence.
“It’s going to be through a meaningful peace process that would lead to end this Israeli occupation that began 46 years ago and is still ongoing,” he said.
Mohammed Shtayyeh, a senior negotiator for the PLO, described Israel’s call for the demilitarization of Gaza as “blackmail.”
“I don’t think there should be any trade between reconstruction of Gaza, humanitarian aid, relief aid and demilitarization of Gaza,” Shtayyeh, a confidant of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “The demilitarization of Gaza should be part of a final status negotiations.”
Hamas leaders say that they want to negotiate an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, or at least have a body other than the Israelis controlling the borders.
They also want an extension of fishing rights off Gaza’s coast and the release of prisoners detained by Israel.
Ismail Haniyeh, a senior leader of Hamas, said in a televised statement Tuesday that Hamas members will work with the Palestinian delegation to end the blockade.
Demands on Egypt
Hamas is also looking for concessions from Egypt, which brokered the cease-fire.
“They’re looking to Egypt to open up the Rafah border, so Egypt is in fact a party to this cease-fire negotiation,” said David Schenker, director of the Washington Institute’s program on Arab Politics. “If you want this to endure, then Egypt is going to have to pony up something.”
But the Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the country’s former military chief, is very wary of Hamas.
El-Sisi has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot.
After ousting former President Mohamed Morsy, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and had closer ties with Hamas, el-Sisi sealed off the Rafah crossing and destroyed smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.
The United States will be on the ground in Cairo for talks but will not be a party to them.
“We don’t negotiate with Hamas. We don’t talk to Hamas. But we certainly want to be there to support an effort to negotiate over these key issues that have been so troubling in the region for so many years,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told CNN’s Tapper.