Egypt calls for open-ended Gaza cease-fire, asks Palestinians, Israel to resume indirect talks



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CAIRO — Egypt on Saturday called for an open-ended cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, urging Israel and Hamas to return to indirect talks after seven weeks of fighting punctuated by a number of failed truce attempts.

The call from the foreign ministry came shortly after Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo. Egyptian officials did not say how they expected renewed talks to produce a different outcome after repeated failures.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev had no immediate comment. Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Gaza's ruling Hamas, said the group would consider the Egyptian appeal, but there was no sign it would budge from longstanding demands.

Meanwhile, senior Hamas officials said the group has signed a pledge to back any Palestinian bid to join the International Criminal Court.

Such written consent increases already strong domestic pressure on Abbas to take such a step. Palestinian acceptance of the court's jurisdiction could expose Israel — as well as Hamas — to war crimes investigations.

The Egyptian cease-fire call reflects Cairo's belief that it holds the key to ending the Gaza war and brokering a broader border deal for the territory. Israel and Egypt have severely restricted trade and travel in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory from Abbas in 2007.

Israel and Abbas back Egyptian mediation efforts. However, Hamas remains skeptical, largely because of the Egyptian government's hostility both to it and to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, with which Hamas is ideologically linked.

An Egyptian proposal for a long-term truce included giving Abbas a role in supervising border crossing points where movement would gradually be eased. Abbas would also administer a proposed multi-billion dollar Gaza reconstruction program. However, the proposal lacked any detailed Israeli commitments, and Hamas rejected it, demanding a lifting of the blockade.

The Egyptian-brokered talks and a temporary cease-fire collapsed earlier this week, and fighting has persisted since then.

On Saturday, an airstrike on a house in central Gaza killed two women, two children and a man, according to medics at the Red Crescent. Six strikes also hit a house in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza, causing severe damage and wounding at least five people, Gaza police said.

More than 2,090 Palestinians, including close to 500 children, have been killed since the Gaza war began on July 8, according to Palestinian officials and U.N. figures. Israel lost 64 soldiers and four civilians, including a 4-year-old boy killed by a mortar shell Friday. The U.N. says three-fourths of those killed in Gaza have been civilians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the collapse of the most recent cease-fire. In a phone conversation with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Netanyahu alleged that Hamas has violated 11 cease-fires since the war started, Netanyahu's office said.

On the International Criminal Court issue, Hamas's consent adds to domestic pressure on Abbas to join the body that has been mounting since the start of the fighting.

A hesitant Abbas has debated for months whether to join the international court, a step that could transform his relations with Israel from tense to openly hostile, strain his ties with the United States and deprive his government of badly needed Western financial support.

Last month, Abbas said he would not make a move without the written consent of all Palestinian factions. He obtained such support from all groups represented in the Palestine Liberation Organization, while Hamas, not a PLO member, said it would study the idea.

Even after Hamas' written consent, it's not clear if and when Abbas might turn to the court. Abbas signaled Saturday that he hasn't made a decision yet, saying after his meeting with el-Sissi that "we are about to finalize this issue."

In a further complication, the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group, also not a PLO member and one of the factions fighting in Gaza, said Saturday it would not approve going to the international court.

Netanyahu's office declined comment. Israel opposes involving the court, arguing that Israel and the Palestinians should deal with any issues directly.

If Abbas were to turn to the court, Hamas could be investigated for indiscriminate rocket fire at Israel since 2000. Israel could come under scrutiny for its actions in the current Gaza war as well as decades of settlement building on war-won lands the Palestinians seek for a state.

Hamas has been branded a terrorist organization by Israel and the West. Israel has accused Hamas of using Gaza civilians as human shields by firing rockets from residential areas.

After the last major round of Israel-Hamas fighting more than five years ago, a U.N. fact-finding team said both Israel and Hamas violated the rules of war by targeting civilians — Hamas by firing rockets at Israel.

Izzat Rishq, a senior Hamas official, said Saturday that Hamas was not concerned about becoming a target of a war crimes investigation and urged Abbas to act "as soon as possible."

"We are under occupation, under daily attack and our fighters are defending their people," he said in a phone interview from Qatar. "These rockets are meant to stop Israeli attacks and it is well known that Israel initiated this war and previous wars."


Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank and Karin Laub and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.

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