Gaza under fire as Cairo talks face crunch point

Mai Yaghi
AFP

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Truce talks in Cairo faced a moment of truth Sunday with the Palestinians threatening to bolt unless Israel returned to the table as simmering violence in Gaza killed a teenager.

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Israel would never negotiate under fire, Egyptian and Palestinian negotiators wrapped up a fresh round of talks in Cairo, saying they would issue a statement within the coming hours.

And Gazans lived through another nervous day as the air force carried out 29 air strikes, killing a 17-year-old teenager in a field near his home whom Israel described as a "prominent terror operative".

Eight Palestinian rocket attacks struck the south, causing no harm or damage, the army said.

Since a 72-hour truce ended on Friday, Gaza has been plunged back into an abyss of violence, with the Israeli military hitting more than 150 targets and killing 15 people, and Palestinian militants launching 110 rockets of which 80 smashed into Israel.

So far, Egyptian efforts to broker an end to more than a month of fighting have led nowhere, with Israel pulling its team out of talks in Cairo on Friday after accusing Hamas of breaching the ceasefire.

"Israel will not engage in negotiations under fire," Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday, warning that Operation Protective Edge would continue until Israel ensured prolonged quiet for its citizens.

His remarks were made shortly after the Palestinians warned they would leave Cairo if Israel refused to show up by 1300 GMT.

In Gaza, a group of young men chanted "God is greatest" after the body of the dead Palestinian teen, wrapped in blood-stained shroud and draped with a yellow Fatah flag, was brought home for burial.

Neighbours passed around pieces of shrapnel as he was laid to rest in a plot where several other freshly-dug graves laid open, as if prepared for further deaths.

Shops were open in little pockets, but fear kept many people off the streets in Gaza City.

"We are tired. We just want to go home, but we want something in exchange for all our suffering," 27-year-old Samar Mohammad told AFP.

In the West Bank, an 11-year-old Palestinian boy was shot dead by Israeli troops as he played outside his home in a refugee camp near the southern city of Hebron, relatives and medics said.

"He was shot in the back and the bullet exited through his stomach," said his uncle Yussef al-Anati, crying, his shirt soaked in blood after carrying his nephew to hospital.

The Israeli military said it was looking into the reports.

Israel's Gaza operation has triggered a series of almost daily protests across the West Bank, during which 16 Palestinians have been killed, the Ramallah-based health ministry said.

- Crunch point -

Mussa Abu Marzuq, deputy head of Hamas's exiled leadership, accused Israel of stalling over its demands and said Sunday would be crucial for deciding "the fate of the negotiations".

"We do not want an escalation, but we will not accept that there is no reply to our demands," he said late Saturday.

The Palestinian delegation, which includes Palestine Liberation Organisation officials as well as senior figures from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, was holding further talks with Egyptian mediators, an official said.

But there appeared little chance of a breakthrough.

"The prospects of reaching an agreement are weak and the Palestinian delegation could leave Cairo at any moment," Izzat al-Rishq, member of the Hamas politburo, tweeted shortly before the talks began.

In Israel, Netanyahu is under pressure from hardliners to send troops back into Gaza to topple Hamas, the de facto power in the battered Palestinian enclave.

"There is no doubt that the only thing left to do now is to overpower Hamas, clean out the territory and get out as quickly as possible," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said ahead of the meeting.

Last week's pullout of Israeli ground troops and the subsequent three days of calm brought relief to millions after four weeks of bloody fighting which has killed more than 1,916 Palestinians and 67 in Israel, most of them soldiers.

The UN says around three quarters of those killed in Gaza were civilians, around a third of them children.

France, Britain and Germany on Saturday demanded an immediate halt to the ongoing hostilities, saying in a joint declaration that a ceasefire must address "both Israeli security concerns and Palestinian requirements regarding the lifting of restrictions on Gaza".

Lifting Israel's eight-year blockade on Gaza is the main Palestinian demand at the truce talks.