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A Hamas delegation was in Cairo on Tuesday to discuss an Egyptian-proposed ceasefire with Israel, 10 days after the Jewish state unleashed its massive offensive on the Islamists’ Gaza Strip stronghold.
The talks with the Palestinian delegation, headed by Emad al-Alami and Mohammed Nasr from Hamas’s Syrian-based political leadership, represent the first such contact since fighting began but hopes of a truce appear dim.
Egypt has a peace deal with Israel and negotiated a previous six-month truce which expired on December 19, heralding the latest violence in which more than 590 Palestinians have been killed. Another 2 700 have been wounded, medics say.
Cairo has since been walking a tightrope between accusations of complicity with the Israeli offensive and trying to broker an end to the fighting which has also killed nine Israelis, most of them soldiers.
”We will speak with Egyptian leaders about the aggression in Gaza,” Nasr said.
”Our position is clear: end the aggression, withdraw [Israeli forces] from Gaza, open the crossing points, especially Rafah, with a total lifting of the blockade.”
Rafah in Egypt, the only border crossing with the Gaza Strip that bypasses Israel, has remained largely closed since the offensive started, with a trickle of aid going one way and wounded people the other.
Israel’s bombing of the Palestinian side of the border — in a bid to destroy smuggling tunnels — has also made it impossible to keep the gates open.
‘Egypt key in resolving conflict’
Mussa Abu Marzuq, the Damascus-based deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau, said that Egypt had the potential to halt the conflict.
He added that Egypt might ”present to visiting Hamas members an official Egyptian or European ceasefire initiative”, but that Hamas had not yet received any such offer.
The Hamas delegation was to meet Egyptian intelligence officials later on Tuesday, a security official said.
”We asked for a Hamas delegation with capability and authority to be sent to examine how a ceasefire can be achieved,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit was quoted as saying in the state-owned Al-Ahram daily.
The paper said the delegation would also examine an Egyptian proposal for Hamas to reconcile with the Fatah faction of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.
Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah in June 2007, and in November boycotted Egyptian efforts to reconcile the divided Palestinians.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last week said he would not reopen Rafah because he did not want to officialise the rift between Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas.
Under a 2005 deal, the Rafah crossing can only be opened to normal traffic if European Union observers and PA forces are at the border, which is also monitored by Israel.
The destruction of Egypt-Gaza tunnels around Rafah is a key Israeli objective in the war, aimed at preventing Hamas being able to rearm with rockets.
Tunnels are, however, also a vital conduit for food supplies and basic needs, such as medicines, for many of the 1,5 million people in the territory which has been under tight Israeli blockade for more than 18 months.
Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair said on Tuesday that cutting off the smuggling tunnels could secure an immediate ceasefire.
Cutting off the supply of arms and money through the tunnels is ”the one basis on which you can bring a quick halt to this, otherwise I think we’re into a more protracted campaign,” Blair said.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed that the campaign would continue until Israel completely wiped out Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into the Jewish state.
Innocent lives wiped out
Meanwhile it’s been estimated that more than a quarter of the hundreds of dead from the Gaza conflict are children, and aid groups say the survivors will suffer physical and psychological scars for the rest of their lives.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated, impoverished places in the world and children make up 56% of the 1,5 million population.
Even before the Israeli offensive on the Hamas territory started on December 27, malnourishment and the winter cold had taken a heavy toll.
”They can’t play, they can’t sleep, they can’t go to school. They’re traumatised,” said Benedict Dempsey of the Save the Children group.
But Israel insists it is doing all it can to avert civilian casualties, and blames Hamas for launching attacks from populated areas.
”The bottom line is if you’re operating heavy weaponry in a very densely populated area, people who have nothing to do with the conflict will die. Sadly, this includes kids,” said Dempsey. — Sapa-AFP