(Reuters) - An Egyptian-proposed cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip could be finalised as early as Sunday, according to Western and Palestinian officials.
Under the plan, declaration of an 18-month cease-fire would be followed by an exchange of prisoners, the opening of Gaza’s border crossings and reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian factions.
It would take the place of a shaky January 18 truce that ended Israel’s 22-day military offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed.
Israel said it launched the offensive to halt cross-border rocket attacks by militants. At least three rockets were fired from Gaza on Friday.
Israel’s envoy to the talks, senior defence official Amos Gilad, is expected to return to Cairo, possibly on Saturday night. These are the components of the proposed deal, according to Western diplomats and Palestinian officials:
Egypt would open the Rafah border crossings with Gaza under the auspices of international monitors and border guards who would report to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’s rival. Turkey may also send a force to oversee the functioning of Rafah, Gaza’s only passage to the outside world that does not go through Israel.
The Hamas Islamist group, which beat Abbas’s secular Fatah faction in a 2006 election and seized control of the Gaza Strip 18 months later, has been vague on whether it would cede control of the Gaza side of the crossing to Abbas’s security forces.
Israel would open border crossings with the Gaza Strip, but it is unclear how soon and under what conditions. Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has hinged a full opening of the crossings on the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in 2006. Olmert has also refused to offer Hamas guarantees that the passages will stay open.
Israel has insisted that certain materials be barred from entry because they could be used to make rockets, fortifications or explosives. These include certain types of steel piping and chemicals used in agriculture, Israeli defence officials said.
Hamas officials say they have demanded more details about what would be excluded from entering the impoverished enclave, which will require massive amounts of steel, cement and other commercial goods to rebuild after the war.
Israeli and Palestinian officials have sent mixed signals about the status of prisoner swap talks. Hamas has demanded that Israel free 1,400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Diplomats said Israel would free closer to 1,000.
A 300-metre wide buffer zone would be established along Gaza’s border with Israel, from which militants would be barred. Israel initially proposed a zone 500 to 800 metres wide.
Reporting by Adam Entous in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Kevin Liffey