Truce holds as Cairo talks turn to Gaza blockade

Jerusalem - The skies over Gaza remained calm on Tuesday on the second day of a 72-hour truce as negotiators in Cairo prepared to tackle the thorny issue of the Israeli blockade.

As Gaza's residents ventured out to try to piece together their battered lives, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sat down for a second day of indirect talks aimed at finding a durable end to the five-week confrontation.

A senior Israeli official told AFP there was still a long way to go to reach an agreement to end the conflict, which erupted on 8 July when Israel launched military operations to halt cross-border rocket fire from Gaza.

"The negotiations are difficult and gruelling," a Palestinian official said of Monday's talks, which lasted almost 10 hours and which were described as "serious".

But he said Tuesday's meetings would be "the most important", saying they would tackle core issues such as Israel's eight-year blockade of Gaza, which the Palestinians want lifted.

Tuesday's talks were expected to go on into the evening, a Palestinian official said.

Ahead of the talks, an Israeli official played down the chances of success.

"The gaps are still very wide. There has not been progress in the negotiations," he told AFP on Tuesday ahead of the return of the Israeli delegation to Cairo in the early afternoon.

The two delegations gather in separate rooms at the headquarters of the Egyptian General Intelligence and never see each other, with mediators shuttling between them with proposals and counterproposals, a source said.

Hamas wants Israel to lift the blockade it imposed on Gaza in 2006 before it will stop rocket attacks. Israel has said it will only facilitate Gaza's reconstruction if the enclave is fully disarmed.

And in a sign that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also faced domestic political battles to sell any deal to his factious coalition government, he called off a planned meeting of his security cabinet on Tuesday and instead invited key ministers, mainly hawks, for private meetings, Israeli media reported.

In northern Gaza, several families could be seen picking through the rubble of their badly-damaged homes not far from the Erez crossing.

As residents of one apartment uncovered remains of a large missile, others outside brewed coffee on a fire made with paper and wood collected from the ruins. Some even brought breakfast, clearing a space to sit and eat among piles of rubble, broken furniture and twisted steel.

"Every day we come here, we sit a little and then we go," said Mohamed Gama, who is staying with relatives due to the overcrowding in UN schools where hundreds of thousands have sought refuge from the fighting.

Truce clock ticking

Egypt, which brokered the three-day truce, has urged the warring sides to make every effort to reach "a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire".

Efforts to extend a similar 72-hour lull last week shattered after Hamas refused to hold its fire beyond the deadline, accusing Israel of refusing to lift the blockade.

Both sides said they were ready to resume hostilities if the talks failed again.

The Israeli military confirmed one of its naval patrol boats had opened fire when a small motor boat from Gaza sailed beyond the three nautical mile offshore limit imposed by Israel.

"We fired a warning shot into the air only and they sailed away," a spokesperson told AFP.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz warned that without a reasonable outcome to the talks, there could be another ground operation in Gaza.

"Either there will be a reasonable resolution of the situation in Gaza, or, if the fire resumes, we will have to consider... an expansion on the ground, overthrowing the Hamas authorities and the demilitarisation of Gaza by ourselves," Steinitz told army radio.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid told AFP he was pushing for an international conference on Gaza's future that would involve regional players as well as Washington, the European Union and moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.

"We think that Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas should take control of Gaza and be active in its reconstruction," the minister told AFP.

Palestinian negotiators have expressed willingness to see the PA assume responsibility for Gaza's reconstruction and implement any deal signed in Cairo.

Israel has no direct dealings with Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Anger at UN probe team

Meanwhile, Israel lashed out after the UN Human Rights Council named experts who would be involved in an inquiry into its Gaza offensive.

Canadian international lawyer William Schabas, who will head the commission, is widely regarded in Israel as being hostile to the Jewish state over reported calls to haul Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before the International Criminal Court.

"This commission's anti-Israeli conclusions have already been written, all it needs is a signature," railed foreign ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor.

Schabas denies being anti-Israel.