A 72-hour Gaza ceasefire held on Wednesday and Israel said it was ready to extend the deal as Egyptian mediators pursued talks with Israelis and Palestinians on an enduring end to a war that has devastated the Islamist Hamas-dominated enclave.
Egypt's intelligence chief met a Palestinian delegation in Cairo, the state news agency MENA said, a day after he conferred with Israeli representatives. The Palestinian team, led by an official from Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party, includes envoys from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.
"The indirect talks between the Palestinians and Israelis are moving forward," one Egyptian official said, making clear that the opposing sides were not meeting face to face. "It is still too early to talk about outcomes but we are optimistic."
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri told reporters his country was working hard for a deal and sought "solutions to protect the Palestinian people and their interests".
An Israeli official said Israel "has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms" beyond a Friday deadline for the three-day deal that took effect on Tuesday.
Hamas had no immediate comment. But a senior official with the Islamist group's armed wing threatened earlier to quit the talks without progress towards achieving its demands to lift a Gaza blockade and free prisoners held by Israel.
"Unless the conditions of the resistance are met, the negotiating team will withdraw from Cairo and then it will be up to the resistance in the field," a senior commander of the armed wing told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Israel's armed forces chief, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, said in televised remarks that should Hamas disrupt the calm, "we will not hesitate to continue to use our force wherever necessary and with whatever force necessary to ensure the security of Israeli citizens near and far."
Israel withdrew ground forces from tiny, densely populated Gaza on Tuesday morning and started a 72-hour, Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas as a first step towards a long-term deal.
It showed signs of expecting the truce to last by lifting official emergency restrictions on civilians living in Israel's south near Gaza, permitting more public activities and urging everyone to resume their routines.
Streets in towns in southern Israel, which had been under daily rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, were filled again with playing children. The military said that two rocket-warning sirens sounded in the south proved to be false alarms.
In Gaza, where some half-million people have been displaced by a month of bloodshed, some residents left U.N. shelters to trek back to neighbourhoods where whole blocks have been destroyed by Israeli shelling and the smell of decomposing bodies fouls the air.
Palestinians want an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on impoverished Gaza and the release of prisoners, including those Israel arrested in a June crackdown in the occupied West Bank after three Jewish seminary students were kidnapped and killed.
Israel has resisted those demands.
"For Israel the most important issue is the issue of demilitarization. We must prevent Hamas from rearming, we must demilitarize the Gaza Strip," Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told Reuters television.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview on the BBC's HARDtalk program, also spoke of a need for Hamas to decommission its rocket arsenal.
"What we want to do is support the Palestinians and their desire to improve their lives and to be able to open crossings and get food in and reconstruct and have greater freedom," Kerry said.
"But that has to come with a greater responsibility towards Israel, which means giving up rockets, moving into a different plane," he said.
Kerry said, however, all this would "finally come together" as part of wider Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts that he has spearheaded but which have been frozen since April over Israel's opposition to a unity deal between Hamas and Abbas's Palestine Liberation Organization.
Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Abbas in 2007, has ruled out giving up its weapons.
An Israeli official, who declined to be identified, said Israel wanted humanitarian aid to flow to the Palestinian enclave's 1.8 million inhabitants as soon as possible.
But, the official said, the import of cement - vital for reconstruction - would depend on achieving guarantees that it would not be used by militants to construct more infiltration tunnels leading into Israel and other fortifications.
Gaza officials say the war has killed 1,867 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Israel says 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed since fighting began on July 8, after a surge in Palestinian rocket launches.
An Israeli opinion poll, conducted after the ceasefire went into effect, said Israelis, while not regarding the Gaza war as a victory for their country's powerful military, remained highly supportive of Netanyahu.
According to the poll in the Haaretz newspaper, 51 percent of those surveyed said neither side won, while 36 percent believe that Israel emerged victorious. Six percent said Hamaswas the victor.
Of the 442 people who took part in the poll, 77 percent described Netanyahu's performance during the war as excellent or good.
Efforts to turn the ceasefire into a lasting truce could prove difficult, with the sides far apart on their central demands, and each rejecting the other's legitimacy. Hamas rejects Israel's existence and vows to destroy it, while Israel denounces Hamas as a terrorist group and eschews any ties.
Egypt has positioned itself as a mediator in successive Gaza conflicts but, like Israel, its current administration views Hamas as a security threat.
Besides the loss of life, the war has cost both sides economically. Gaza faces a massive $6-billion price tag to rebuild devastated infrastructure. Israel has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism and other sectors and fears cuts in overall economic growth this year as well.
Palestinian officials said a donor conference to raise funds for Gaza's reconstruction would be held in Oslo next month.
CHILDREN PAY HEAVY PRICE
All 11-year-old Yasmin Al-Bakri remembers is that her mother was baking bread.
Then she woke up in a hospital bed in Gaza to discover that both legs and her right arm were in bandages and she was suffering severe burns and fractures after her house was hit by an Israeli air strike. She also learned that she had lost most of her family.
Yasmin survived, but figures issued on Wednesday by UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, showed that 419 Palestinian children have been killed in the nearly month-long Gaza war. That compares with 350 children who died in Israel's three-week ground offensive in the enclave five years ago.
At least six Israeli children were reportedly injured due to rocket fire from Gaza in the past month, according to preliminary UNICEF figures.
Yasmin says she was told her mother, her six-year-old sister and her three-month-old brother were killed along with her uncle and her cousin when an Israeli missile hit their house two days ago.
"I was helping my mother while she baked bread, then I don't know what happened. When I woke up in the hospital they told me what happened," Yasmin told Reuters as she was readied for surgery on her broken arm.
"My mother died, my sister, who was supposed to start first grade at school, and my baby brother. My uncle was also martyred and my cousin too," Yasmin said in a soft voice, struggling to breathe.
OBAMA SUPPORTS CEASEFIRE EXTENSION
President Obama expressed support on Wednesday for Egyptian efforts in Cairo to broker a longer-term Gaza ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians and said it was important to make sure that the current temporary 72-hour truce holds.
Speaking after an Africa summit in Washington, Obama called for developing a "formula" that assuresIsrael that Gaza will no longer be used for launching cross-border Hamas rocket attacks while also helping to ease hardships of Gaza's population, which suffered heavy civilian casualties during the latest conflict.
"We will continue to be trying to work as diligently as we can to move the process forward," Obama told a news conference. He also called for a negotiating role for the mainstream Palestinian Authorit