Hamas Debates Cease-Fire With Israel as Leaders Head to Gaza

(Bloomberg) -- Top Hamas chiefs from abroad traveled to the Gaza Strip in a bid to decide with local leaders whether to call off four months of conflict with Israel and accept a cease-fire proposed by mediators from Egypt and the United Nations.

Salah al-Arouri, Turkey-based deputy head of the militant group that rules Gaza, and Mussa Abu Marzuk, another senior leader, crossed from Egypt to Gaza for three days of talks, spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in an email. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union.

The arrival of the Hamas leadership follows a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at curtailing the violence between Palestinians in Gaza and Israel, while also trying to end the 11-year-old schism between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for Middle East peace efforts, has over the past two weeks been shuttling among Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza to sell the cease-fire. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Abu Amr to Gaza for the talks.

The aim of Al-Arouri’s visit is “to achieve an internal reconciliation and end the unfair Israeli siege that has been imposed on the Gaza Strip for 12 years,” Barhoum said.

Netanyahu Trip Canceled

Gaza, a tiny coastal wedge that is home to 2 million Palestinians, has been the scene of air-raids, firefights and missile battles since the end of March when residents started weekly protest marches to the fence separating them from Israel. More than 150 Palestinians have been killed since then, many by Israeli army snipers. Gunmen from Gaza have occasionally fired on Israeli forces too, killing a soldier two weeks ago, while others have launched rockets into Israeli towns and sent incendiary kites and balloons across the border, setting fire to Israeli farmland.

While Israel and Hamas say they don’t talk directly, speculation that a deal is in the works was heightened Thursday when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly canceled a visit to Colombia planned for next week. Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet will meet Sunday to discuss the cease-fire efforts, Israel’s Channel 10 reported.

In another move that prompted talk of progress, Israel approved the entry of six truckloads of equipment for water projects carried out by the U.S. government agency, USAID. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, however, on Thursday banned the entry of fuel and gas deliveries to Gaza over the persistence of incendiary devices launched at Israel.

Israel has been seeking the release of two citizens held in Gaza and the bodies of two soldiers killed in a 2014 war with Hamas. Israel had to free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011 to secure the release of a single soldier held prisoner by Hamas for five years, but opposition to another such transaction has grown among the public and politicians, who say it gives Hamas an incentive to kidnap Israelis.

Netanyahu’s deputy minister for public diplomacy, Michael Oren, acknowledged that efforts were being made to halt the violence, without discussing Israel’s involvement.

“We always communicate through third parties,” he said. “There’s no viable solution for Gaza that does not involve Egypt.”

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