The coming days could be critical for the negotiations over the future of Gaza, with a fine line separating some kind of accord from further escalation. The ongoing contacts in Cairo could still end with a last-minute blowup, as has happened many times in the past. Yet there are growing signs that the parties to the negotiations see a potential breakthrough.
A partial list of developments over the last few days: Prime Minister Netanyahu canceled a scheduled trip to Colombia, saying that he had to monitor the situation in Gaza (the Israeli media’s indifference to the visit may also have played a part in the decision); cabinet Minister Yuval Steinitz predicted that “we are on the way to a long-term arrangement with Hamas”; the cabinet will convene for a special session on Sunday; Israel took the unusual step of permitting Salah Arouri, a Hamas official who lives abroad and is suspected of involvement in terrorist activity in the West Bank, to enter Gaza to participate in consultations there. Israel also allowed, after numerous delays, the entry of equipment that is vital to complete the construction of a big water desalination plant in Gaza.
Reports from Cairo indicate that Egyptian intelligence officials put heavy pressure on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to formulate a new reconciliation agreement to replace the one signed last October but never put into effect.
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In the talks, the PA apparently demanded a return to Hamas’ commitments from the year before, including “handing over the keys” for managing day-to-day affairs in Gaza and placing restrictions on the independent activity of the Hamas security organizations in Gaza. Sources close to the negotiations say Hamas and the PA are “more than halfway” to an agreement.
The matter of the missing and captive Israelis in Gaza remains a major one, but there is an attempt to handle contacts on this matter in a separate channel, which would begin progress after a new Palestinian reconciliation agreement were signed and the easing of civilian conditions in Gaza began.
The idea is to urgently advance moves in five vital areas: water, electricity, sewage, fuel and medical equipment. Nikolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East, has been closely monitoring the talks. He has been trying to arrange a new channel for transferring funds to Gaza, which will again rely on money from Qatar.
>> Gaza's indifference will spell its end | Opinion ■ No fuel, no gas: Israel clamps down on Gaza over airborne firebombs ■ Netanyahu cancels trip abroad amid reports on progress in Israel-Hamas talks <<
Incendiary balloons and kites from Gaza continued to land in the Negev this week, with strong eastern winds dispersing them over a wide area. Some were even found in Be’er Sheva. Radio reports described panic in the city, and former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin was asked if Ashdod residents should also worry.
Yadlin explained, rightly, that the fires are the visible tip of the invisible developments happening with the talks in Cairo. He also had reassuring words for Ashdod: With the way the winds blow, the city is not in danger.
Media coverage of the fires faded a bit this week. The press may be getting tired, but the firefighting crews are still having to run constantly from one blaze to another. The nation-state law is also serving the prime minister as an effective distraction from the ongoing crisis in Gaza. On this legal front, unlike the Gaza front, Netanyahu can portray himself to his voters as a resolute patriot – without risking an unnecessary war.