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Israel recalls negotiators, warplanes hit Gaza again


Smoke billow following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern of Gaza Strip, on Tuesday. Photo: AFP/SAID KHATIB

Cairo: Israel ordered its negotiators back from talks in Cairo and warplanes hit Gaza on Tuesday after Palestinian rockets smashed into the south as the two sides were observing a 24-hour truce.

Nine days of relative quiet in the skies over Gaza came to an abrupt halt when three rockets struck southern Israel just hours before the truce was to expire at midnight local time.

Israel immediately ordered a military response, with warplanes striking targets across the battered Gaza Strip, although there were no immediate reports of casualties, Palestinian security sources and witnesses told AFP.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the rockets fired at Beersheva, which is home to around 200,000 Israelis.

An Israeli official said the negotiating team had been ordered back from Cairo where Egypt has been pushing for a decisive end to the Gaza bloodshed, which has killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and 67 on the Israeli side.

However, there was no immediate confirmation the team had left.

"The Cairo process was based on the premise of a total ceasefire," another official told AFP. "If Hamas fires rockets the Cairo process has no basis."

Israel has repeatedly said it would not negotiate under fire and on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned there would be "a very strong response" should there be any resumption of fire.

Hamas dismissed his remarks as having "no weight".

The talks in Cairo centre on an Egyptian proposal that meets some of the Palestinian demands, such as easing Israel's eight-year blockade on Gaza, but defers debate on other thorny issues until later.

The aim is to broker a long-term arrangement to halt more than a month of bloody fighting, although both sides have largely silenced their guns since August 11 thanks to a series of temporary truces.

Talks at the headquarters of Egyptian intelligence resumed at around 0800 GMT, a Palestinian official told AFP.

Although the back-to-back truce agreements have brought relief to millions on both sides of the border, the drawn-out waiting and the fear of a resumption of fighting was beginning to test people's patience.

"No one here has any hope," said Riyad Abul Sultan, a father of 10 with thick curly hair, smoking as he sat on a flimsy mattress at a UN school in Gaza.

"Maybe they'll finish the war for two hours, maybe Israel will start bombing again."

The Palestinians say agreement over a long-term arrangement in Gaza has been delayed by Israeli foot-dragging over key issues.

"The negotiations failed on Monday evening because the Israelis refused to include a port or an airport in the agreement," a Palestinian source close to the talks said, on condition of anonymity.

"The Egyptians then added a clause allowing for the postponement of talks on this issue in order to avoid Israel raising the issue of (ridding Gaza of) rockets and missiles," he said.

Israel has repeatedly demanded that Gaza be demilitarised although the subject is not overly mentioned in the Egyptian proposal as seen by AFP.

Playing for time

Islamic Jihad on Tuesday accused Israel of "intransigence" while Hamas's Abu Zuhri said the Zionist state was "playing for time" at the talks.

Hamas had repeatedly warned it would not extend the temporary ceasefire again, pressing for immediate gains that would allow it to claim concessions from Israel after the devastating four-week war, which began on July 8.

But a senior official within the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) said the movement appeared to have changed its position following a meeting at the weekend between exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat.

"It looks like Hamas and Islamic Jihad will agree to the Egyptian paper," he told AFP.

Egypt's proposal calls for both sides to immediately ceasefire and includes provisions relating to opening the borders to allow for free movement of people, goods and construction materials, as well as a clause on regulating the financial crisis within the enclave.






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