GAZA (Reuters) - Israel and Hamas have narrowed gaps over a longer-term truce for the Gaza Strip and could begin implementing a deal within days, Hamas officials said on Monday.
Egyptian-sponsored negotiations in Cairo have grown increasingly intense ahead of an Israeli election on Tuesday.
Senior Hamas leader Osama al-Muzaini told Reuters an 18-month cease-fire could be declared in “a few days,” though he offered no details on how it would be implemented.
Earlier in Paris, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the truce could begin next week.
Western and Palestinian officials said gaps between Israel and Hamas have narrowed on several issues, including the establishment of a 300-metre wide buffer zone along Gaza’s border with Israel. Militants would be barred from entering it.
Aides to outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declined to comment.
Egypt has proposed a staged process beginning with a cease-fire declaration, a deal to exchange prisoners, the opening of Gaza’s border crossings and reconciliation talks between rival Palestinian factions.
If finalised, 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. Fourteen Israelis have died since December 27, when the fighting broke out.
Sticking points could hold up agreement.
Israeli and Palestinian officials have sent mixed signals about the status of prisoner swap talks, which would intensify after the proposed cease-fire takes hold.
Hamas has demanded that Israel free 1,400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid in 2006. Diplomats said Israel was likely to free closer to 1,000.
Under the deal, Israel would open border crossings with the Gaza Strip, but it was unclear how soon and under what conditions. Olmert has hinged a full opening of the crossings on Shalit’s release and has refused to offer Hamas guarantees that the passages will stay open.
Another major sticking point in the talks has been Israel’s insistence that certain materials be barred from entry because they could be used to make rockets, fortifications and explosives. These include certain types of steel piping and chemicals used in agriculture, Israeli defence officials said.
Hamas officials say they have demanded 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. But Egypt and Israel have balked at Hamas demands that the terms be put in writing.
As part of the deal, 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.
The 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 about the extent to which it would be willing to cede control of the Gaza side of the crossing to Abbas’s security forces.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous in Jerusalem; Writing by Adam Entous