Israeli team arrives in Cairo to assess Hamas truce position

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -A team of mid-ranking Israeli officials has arrived in Cairo to assess whether the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas can be persuaded to shift on its latest ceasefire offer, a senior Israeli official said on Tuesday.

The official earlier reiterated that the current Hamas proposal was unacceptable to Israel.

"This delegation is made up of mid-level envoys. Were there a credible deal in the offing, the principals would be heading the delegation," the official told Reuters, referring to the senior officials from the intelligence services Mossad and Shin Bet who are leading the Israeli side.

The team's arrival in the Egyptian capital came hours after Israeli tanks took control of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

Israeli jets have carried out repeated strikes on eastern Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where more than 1 million Palestinians displaced by the seven-month war have been sheltering.

Egypt's state-aligned Al Qahera News TV reported that there were still efforts by the two sides to contain the escalation.

But an Israeli government spokesperson said in a briefing earlier that Israel's objective remains to destroy Hamas.

"We're always open to a diplomatic resolution... but I must tell you that this operation in Rafah is designed to destroy the last four battalions of Hamas. This country will be protected, and Hamas will be completely annihilated," said David Mencer.

Egyptian officials have asked Israel to stop the Rafah operation immediately, Al Qahera News TV reported. Hamas issued a statement saying the Rafah operation was designed to undermine ceasefire efforts.


The senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel's determination to move against Rafah had pushed Hamas into hastily setting out its latest proposal.

The latest proposal took the basic framework of a proposal from April 27, based around a halt in fighting and a return of some of the more than 130 Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israel, but had then stretched it to "unacceptable extremes", the official said.

However, a Hamas official said the group had agreed to the phased ceasefire and hostage release deal Israel proposed on April 27 with only minor changes that did not affect the main parts of the proposal.

The new demand would not allow Israel to veto the release of specific Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, a leader from the Fatah faction currently serving a life sentence for his role in mounting deadly attacks against Israelis.

It would also lift restrictions on the import into Gaza of so-called "dual use" materials that can be used for both civilian and military purposes. "Hamas says these should be allowed in for the rehabilitation of Gaza, but we know that their intention is to manufacture munitions," the official said.

In addition, Hamas was now offering to release only 18 hostages in the first phase of a truce, instead of the 33 who would have been released under previous proposals, with the remainder to come in a subsequent phase, the official said.

"That means Israel would get only 18 hostages if it sticks to its refusal to call off the offensive," the official said.

However, a copy of the proposal Hamas said it had accepted, obtained by Reuters, showed that the Islamist faction would free all hostages before the end of the 42-day first phase period.

(Reporting by Dan Williams and Maytaal Angel, writing by James Mackenzie, Editing by William Maclean, Sharon Singleton and Gareth Jones)