Hopes for a truce grew Monday night when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened Cabinet members to discuss the details of what was said to be a multiphase, multiyear cease-fire agreement.
Officials in Egypt, where the talks were underway, expressed cautious optimism. Arab League leaders and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was visiting the region, were trying to help negotiate a deal. The White House said President Obama, who is visiting Asia, called Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Monday.
Israel is seeking assurances from Egypt that Hamas will halt rocket fire into Israel and not be allowed to rebuild the weapon caches that Israel has destroyed in recent days. Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, wants an end to the land and sea blockade that has crippled its economy, and to targeted killings of its leaders by Israel.
Any sort of agreement must overcome huge obstacles. Israel views Hamas as a terrorist organization and the Islamist militant group refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Even if the two don’t alter those stances, any internationally endorsed truce would usher in a new phase in their relationship. Previously Israel and Hamas have refused direct negotiations, occasionally reaching informal agreements brokered through intermediaries, such as last year’s deal to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
There are sizable risks for both sides, but also opportunities, said Doron Avital, a lawmaker with Israel’s centrist Kadima party and a former commander of an elite military unit.
Hamas would win some of the international legitimacy it craves, but it would also need to moderate its behavior, just as the Palestine Liberation Organization did after signing the Oslo peace accords in 1993.
“It might elevate the status of Hamas, but that will also mean that Hamas will have to play realpolitik,” Avital said. “It can’t stay a terrorist organization forever. There’s an interesting potential here.”
Heated comments by Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal during a Cairo news conference Monday underscored the level of animosity. He called Netanyahu a “child killer” and “murderer.”
“It is Netanyahu who asked for a truce,” Meshaal said. “Gazans don’t even want a truce.”
For Israel, besides gaining an end to rocket attacks from Gaza, a deal might start the process of encouraging Hamas to become more moderate. And if Egypt guarantees an agreement, it would be directly invested in keeping Hamas unarmed.
With no cease-fire in place, Israel has massed soldiers and armor along the Gaza border in preparation for a possible invasion. But ground fighting would almost certainly lead to more Israeli and Palestinian casualties, and voices on both sides have cautioned against it.
Some said the negotiations may have led to an uptick in violence in recent days, as each side attempts to intimidate the other before a truce is called.
Palestinian casualties were relatively low in the first days of the conflict, but have increased as Israel’s air campaign hit targets in more populated areas. On Monday, Israel attacked the Sharouk communications building in Gaza City where it said four senior members of the Islamic Jihad militant group were meeting.
Among the dead was Ramez Harb, a Palestinian journalist. Israel said he was a legitimate target because he served in the information department of Islamic Jihad.
Hamas’ Health Ministry said 107 people had been killed in Gaza, including more than two dozen children. At least 850 people had been wounded.
Three Israelis have died in the barrage of rockets from Gaza and a dozen have been wounded, including three on Monday. An additional 135 rockets were fired Monday, pushing the total over the last week to more than 1,000. Hamas has fired rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time.
The White House said Obama, in his conversation with Morsi, emphasized that the rocket fire into Israel must end.
In a somber sign of the climbing death toll, hundreds of Gazans crowded around the Shifa Hospital morgue Monday morning in a familiar ritual: collecting the bodies of loved ones.
Every few minutes, a morgue official shouted out a family name. People in the crowd would repeat the name until a relative came forward to claim the body.
Trucks with bodies, mourning tents and funerals were a common sight throughout the territory.
One of the biggest funerals was for the 10 members of the Dalu family killed Sunday when an airstrike destroyed their three-story home. Two neighbors were also killed.
Israeli officials said they were targeting a Hamas militant and were investigating the incident, the deadliest single attack in the conflict so far.
Seated under a mourning tent, patriarch Jamal Dalu, 58, counted his losses: his wife, sister, three children, a daughter-in-law and four grandchildren.
“I lost everything I have,” he said, seated next to his only surviving son, Abdallah, 17. “My family, my house, my money, even my car.”
He said the family received no warning that Israel would strike the home.
A delegation of Egyptian professionals and a handful of Hamas officials paid their respects to Dalu and his son, vowing revenge for the attack and turning mourners’ sorrow into rage.
“Israel must collapse,” the crowd chanted. “Keep hitting Tel Aviv.”