GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that ended a month of war was holding for a second day Wednesday, ahead of negotiations in Cairo on a long-term truce and a broader deal for the war-ravaged Gaza Strip.
In the coming days, Egyptian mediators are to shuttle between delegations from both sides to try to work out a deal. The Palestinian delegation is composed of negotiators from all major factions, including Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza. Names of those in the Israeli team have not been disclosed.
Some details have emerged about the negotiating points of Hamas, including an internationally funded reconstruction of the coastal strip that would be overseen by a Palestinian unity government led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
Meanwhile, Norway is organizing a donor conference and the Western-backed Abbas is expected to take the lead in overseeing the rebuilding in the coastal territory, which his Fatah movement lost to Hamas in 2007. International Mideast envoy Tony Blair, who is also involved in arranging the conference, was in Cairo and was to meet with Egypt's foreign minister and Arab League officials on Wednesday.
The cease-fire is the longest lull in a war that has killed nearly 1,900 Palestinians. Israel has lost 67 people, including three civilians.
The war broke out on July 8, when the Israeli military began bombarding targets in Gaza in an attempt to stop Hamas from launching rockets at Israel. On July 17, Israel sent ground troops into the densely-populated territory to destroy underground tunnels it said Hamas had constructed for attacks inside Israel.
But in the weeks leading up to the war, Israeli-Palestinian tensions were soaring in the wake of the June killings of three Israeli teenagers, whose bodies were discovered two weeks after they disappeared in the West Bank.
Israel accused Hamas of being behind the abductions, and subsequently carried out a massive ground operation in the West Bank, arresting hundreds of Hamas operatives as part of a manhunt. And in early July, an Arab teenager was abducted and burned alive by Israeli extremists in an apparent revenge attack. Six Jewish Israelis were arrested in that killing.
On Wednesday, Israel's justice ministry confirmed that the suspected mastermind behind the killing of the three Israeli teens had been arrested in July. The suspect, Husam al-Qawasmi, allegedly led a three-man cell that Israeli prosecutors say kidnapped and murdered the teens. It wasn't immediately clear if al-Qawasmi has been charged.
Israel says the cell's members are all affiliated with Hamas, though the militant group has not claimed any connection to the teens' abduction and killings.
In Gaza, people took advantage on Wednesday of the calm to return to their devastated homes and inspect the damage.
Cars and donkey carts loaded with household goods and mattresses filled the streets and queues formed at banks as people waited to withdraw cash from ATMs.
Crews from utility companies worked frantically to repair downed electricity and telephone lines, though with Gaza's only electrical generating plant badly damaged by an Israeli attack, it may be a long while before anything resembling normal service is restored.
In the devastated Shijaiyah neighborhood east of Gaza city, carpenter Mahmoud Al Maghani, 44, surveyed the damage to his property.
"I think my workshop was here, but honestly I can't make sure of that," he said. "I came yesterday and all I found was rubble."
The mood was upbeat in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, with many people expressing hope that the intensity of the destruction in this round of fighting — the third since Hamas took control of Gaza seven years ago — would ratchet up enough pressure on the international community to find solutions to the territory's problems.
Small groups of civilians trickled back to their homes Wednesday, making their way over buckled roads, through dangling power lines and overturned trees to inspect their neighborhoods. Along the way, rows of flattened buildings alternated with moderately damaged structures — and rare buildings with no damage at all.
Mohammed Musleh, 27, said he had spent the last two weeks with his bride of four months and the rest of his family in the relative safety of the Jabaliyah refugee camp, south of Beit Hanoun.
He surveyed his now uninhabitable third floor apartment in the family's home damaged by tank shelling, and said he hoped that this time a real solution could be found to end the isolation Gazans have endured since Israel imposed a blockade in 2007, followed by one by Egypt late last summer.
"The war was necessary to force the blockade to be lifted," he said. "I hope that this time there will be a really permanent solution for it."