CAIRO – Hamas is ready in principle to commit to a yearlong cease-fire with Israel in exchange for a full opening of Gaza's border crossings, Hamas officials said Tuesday, ahead of a new round of talks with Egyptian mediators in Cairo.
Egypt is trying to forge a durable truce between Israel and Gaza's Hamas leaders, in place of the temporary and increasingly wobbly cease-fire that ended Israel's three-week war on Hamas. But arrangements for border security remain a key sticking point
Israel says it won't ease a 20-month blockade of Gaza without international guarantees that Hamas will be prevented from smuggling weapons into Gaza.
As part of the truce efforts, Egypt is also trying to restart reconciliation talks between Hamas and its main rival, U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Repeated attempts to broker a power-sharing deal have failed in the past.
Prospects remain dim, with Hamas increasingly entrenched since its violent takeover of Gaza in June 2007, when it threw Abbas' Palestinian Authority out of power in the territory. Abbas' government is now limited to the West Bank.
Foreign ministers from nearly a dozen Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, were gathering in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday for what was touted as a meeting to bolster Egypt's mediation mission.
The meeting appeared aimed at showing support for Abbas and pushing Hamas to accept a truce deal and reconciliation. Key Hamas ally Syria was not invited to the session.
Saudi Arabia has offered its own proposals to help along Palestinian reconciliation efforts, said Nabil Amr, the Palestinian representative to Egypt. "The essence of the Saudi ideas is to provide more support for the Egyptian initiative by involving Arabs in it," Amr told The Associated Press.
He did not provide details, but Saudi involvement signaled a more assertive role for the regional powerhouse, which had largely stayed on the sidelines during the Gaza crisis. The high-profile Saudi involvement began Monday, with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal holding surprise meetings in Cairo on Monday with Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Abbas, meanwhile, is on a European tour seeking to ensure that he wins a role in any future Gaza deal. He wants support for a Palestinian unity government and a role in rebuilding impoverished Gaza. On Tuesday, Abbas was in Paris, meeting with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and the president of the lower house of France's parliament.
Egypt is hoping to forge a truce deal by Thursday, and a five-member Hamas delegation was in Cairo on Tuesday for talks with the country's chief mediator.
Ahmed Abdel-Hadi, a Lebanon-based Hamas official, said the movement is ready to commit to a yearlong truce, with the possibility of extending it, in exchange for open borders.
"The coming hours are going to be sensitive, in order to bring out a draft of an agreement, regarding the calm and opening the borders of Gaza," Abdel Hadi told Gaza's Al Quds Radio. "There is an agreement in principle about a calm (cease-fire) for one year. But the movement could show flexibility regarding the time ... if there are guarantees and commitments to lift the sanctions and open the borders."
Abdel-Hadi said Hamas rejects a gradual opening of the border crossings or linking a truce deal to a release of Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit, held by Hamas-allied militants in Gaza since June 2006. "We are going to deal with all the issues as one package, because we are going to avoid the trap of gradual implementation," he said.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the movement is open to extending the cease-fire to 18 months. He said key to any truce is that Egypt open its crossing with Gaza, but said that the details of running the terminal are open to discussion.
Israel and Hamas called cease-fires on Jan 18, ending Israel's 22-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip, aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel.
Israel wants a halt to Palestinian militant rocket fire, as well as a stop to weapons smuggling. Hamas' top demand is the lifting of the blockade, which has allowed only a trickle of supplies into the crowded, impoverished Gaza Strip since 2007.
But Israel does not want any deal that gives Hamas a role in controlling Gaza border crossings out of concern that that would permit continued weapons smuggling. So Egypt has focused on getting Abbas' forces back to the Gaza crossings — perhaps with some form of symbolic Hamas presence — along with European monitors.
The Abu Dhabi meeting also underlines Arab worries over Iran, which many accuse of backing a Hamas to increase its own infulence in the region. Hamas' top political leader, Khaled Mashaal, visited Iran Monday, praising Tehran for its support during Israel's Gaza offensive.
The Saudi Cabinet issued a statement late Monday urging a "unified Arab ranks, to serve Arab issues," and warning of "regional and foreign ambitions cloaked under the guise of support for Arab causes" — a clear reference to Iran.