Abbas-led Palestinian body backs Hamas truce demands in Gaza

An Israeli military excavator works on the Gaza side of the border with Israel during an operation to search for tunnels dug by Palestinian militants. (Baz Ratner, Reuters)

GAZA/JERUSALEM - The Palestinian decision-making body led by President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday endorsed demands by Hamas for halting Gaza fighting with Israel, a move that may help Egyptian-mediated truce efforts.

With Israeli and U.S. encouragement, Egypt has tried to get both sides to hold fire and then negotiate terms for protracted calm in the Palestinian enclave where officials said 624 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in 15 days of fighting.

Hamas, the Gaza Strip's dominant Islamists, and other armed factions had baulked at Cairo's offer, saying they wanted assurances of relief from an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and other concessions. The dispute was further complicated by distrust between Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamas.

In a move that could effectively turn Abbas into the main interlocutor for a Gaza truce, his umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Wednesday formally supported core conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.

"The Gaza demands of stopping the aggression and lifting the blockade in all its forms are the demands of the entire Palestinian people and they represent the goal that the Palestinian leadership has dedicated all its power to achieve," senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said in Ramallah, the hub city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Abbas is based.

"We are confident Gaza will not be broken as long as our people are standing beside it to support it through all possible means until the invaders understand that our great people inside the homeland and outside will not leave Gaza alone."

Signaling that Abbas, too, sought a staggered cessation of hostilities, the Palestinian leader's Fatah faction on Tuesday proposed a truce followed by five days of negotiations on terms.

There was no immediate response to the PLO statement from Hamas or Israel, which pressed the Gaza offensive it began on July 8 after a surge of cross-border rocket salvos.


VIOLENCE AFFECTS FLIGHTS

Israel has lost 29 soldiers in the Gaza clashes, including a tank officer who the army said on Wednesday had been killed by a Palestinian sniper overnight. Two Israeli civilians have been killed by shelling by Palestinian fighters that has reached deep into the Jewish state, spreading panic despite the success of its Iron Dome rocket interceptor and civilian shelters.

Three Palestinians died in Israeli strikes on Wednesday, Gaza officials said. Rocket launches set off air-raid sirens in southern Israel, but there was no word of casualties.

There was also violence in the West Bank, where a Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops near Bethlehem. The army said soldiers fired a rubber bullet at him during a confrontation with dozens of Palestinians hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails.

Egyptian sources, speaking on Tuesday as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo to advance truce efforts, said a unified Palestinian position could help achieve a deal.

Unlike Hamas, which refuses permanent coexistence with the Jewish state, the PLO has pursued peacemaking for two decades.

Those efforts were set back in April when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations over Abbas's surprise power-share deal with Hamas.

Yet Netanyahu stopped short of cutting ties with Abbas, whose forces help secure the West Bank, and foreign mediators continue to see the Palestinian leader as someone the Israelis can negotiate with.

Having unilaterally accepted an Egyptian-proposed truce last week that was rejected by Hamas, the Israelis made clear on Tuesday they would not stand down before their forces destroyed Hamas's military infrastructure, including rocket sites and a network of tunnels used for cross-border Palestinian raids.

"A cease-fire is not near," said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the most dovish member of Netanyahu's security cabinet.

Yet Israel faced mounting international alarm at the toll on Palestinian civilians, as well as economic pressure from lost tourism that soared on Tuesday when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took the rare step of banning flights to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport for at least 24 hours after a rocket from Gaza struck nearby, wounding two people.