- Associated Press - Thursday, March 28, 2019

JERUSALEM (AP) - Egyptian mediators pressed ahead Thursday with efforts to broker a cease-fire between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, even as the sides braced for the possibility of renewed violence this weekend.

As negotiations continued, Hamas was making preparations for a mass demonstration along the Israeli border on Saturday. In response, Israel said it was moving additional troops to the area.

The Egyptian team met with Hamas officials, then went to Israel before returning back to Gaza late Thursday for more meetings. The Egyptians did not comment as talks wrapped up and they returned to their hotel.

Ismail Radwan, a top Hamas official, said that if there is progress, Hamas would scale back Saturday’s demonstration. The protest, marking the one-year anniversary of the weekly gatherings, is expected to be exceptionally large.

“The new understanding, if implemented, would make our people in Gaza feel a significant relief,” Radwan said. He said if Israel “was committed to the understandings, then Saturday’s march would be peaceful.”

Three Hamas officials familiar with the negotiations said the Egyptians were offering the organization a series of measures to ease a crippling Egyptian-Israeli blockade on Gaza. In exchange, Hamas would have to pledge to halt rocket fire and keep border protests under control and far from the separation fence.

The officials say the deal would only take effect after Saturday’s demonstration - a likely sticking point with the Israelis.

They said the Israeli gestures would include an expanded fishing zone for Palestinian anglers off the Mediterranean coast, increasing imports and exports in and out of Gaza, increased electricity from Israel and increased movement of people through Gaza’s border crossings.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were ongoing. One of the officials described the atmosphere as positive.

There was no immediate Israeli comment on the talks.

Nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire during the protests. Israel says it is defending its border against infiltration attempts, noting that protesters have hurled flaming tires, explosives and incendiary balloons across the border. But the military has come under heavy international criticism over the large number of unarmed people who have been shot, sometimes hundreds of meters (yards) away from the border.

During a trip to the southern border region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was prepared to take further military action in Gaza, but only as a last resort.

Netanyahu made his comments Thursday after visiting troops sent to the Gaza border this week after a two-day outbreak of fighting.

The Israeli military said it had beefed up its troop presence along the border with the Gaza Strip and completed preparations for possible renewal of hostilities.

The army said issued a video showing soldiers massing near the border and performing urban combat drills.

“If we need a broader operation, we will enter it strong and confident, and after we have exhausted all other options,” Netanyahu said.

Earlier this week, Israel carried out retaliatory airstrikes against Hamas after a rocket fired from Gaza destroyed a house north of Tel Aviv and wounded seven Israelis. Palestinian militants responded with rocket barrages in some of the most intense fighting since a 2014 war. A fragile calm has held since early Wednesday.

In the midst of the negotiations, the Israeli military said its planes bombed a group of Palestinians who had launched incendiary balloons from Gaza into Israel. The Gaza health ministry confirmed three Palestinians were wounded in the bombing.

Later, the ministry said five more people were wounded by Israeli fire during a night protest in which activists set off loud explosions near the border.

In an open letter to the U.N. secretary-general and High Commissioner for Human Rights, a group of Palestinian rights groups urged the U.N. to help protect demonstrators this weekend.

“We urge the UN to take meaningful action to prevent further unnecessary loss of life and injury by the Israeli occupying forces,” the letter said.


Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed reporting.

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