Palestinians meet in Egypt next week on Gaza truce

CAIRO (Reuters) – Palestinian militant groups will meet in Egypt next week to consider Israel’s response to a Hamas ceasefire offer in the Gaza Strip, Egyptian and Palestinian officials said on Wednesday.

Hamas has offered a six-month halt to hostilities in Gaza if Israel were to lift a crippling embargo on the coastal strip, an offer Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman presented to Israeli officials this week.

Hamas official Ayman Taha said Egypt has invited leaders of the group to Cairo to meet Suleiman, Egypt’s negotiator with the Palestinians, who would inform them of the final Israeli position regarding the truce offer.

“The fate of the issue of calm would depend on that meeting,” Taha said. “We will listen and, depending on that, a decision will be made.”

The Hamas delegation will include leaders from Gaza and in exile. Taha said that if Israel responded positively to the offer, “there could be an agreement reached on the zero hours” to start a truce.

The meeting will be held next week, Egypt’s state news agency MENA said, quoting an unnamed Egyptian security source.

Washington has backed Cairo’s mediation in the hope of curbing violence, including rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and Israeli raids in the territory, which has threatened to derail peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Suleiman told reporters before holding talks with Olmert and other Israeli leaders this week that he had “high expectations” a ceasefire deal could be reached.

Israel said on Monday a deal with Hamas must address the issue of a captive Israeli soldier, posing what appeared to be a new condition for a truce. Hamas has said a truce agreement and the release of Gilad Shalit, held by Gaza militants since 2006, should remain separate issues.

Israeli officials had said separate Egyptian efforts to broker a prisoner swap that could free hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails in return for Shalit had broken down and any truce accord must include a resumption of talks on the issue.

Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas’s Fatah faction last June, prompting Israel to step up economic sanctions and Egypt to shut its frontier with the Palestinian coastal enclave.

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