JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel and Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip began indirect talks Monday in Egypt aimed at forging a new era of relations between the bitter enemies following a cease-fire that ended the heaviest fighting in nearly four years.
The talks, being mediated by Egypt, were the first negotiations since the cease-fire took effect last Wednesday, halting eight days of airstrikes targeting militant groups in the Palestinian territory and rocket attacks that reached deep into Israel.
Israel launched some 1,500 airstrikes in a bid to end rocket attacks out of Gaza, while the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant groups fired a similar number of rockets at Israeli cities. More than 160 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians were killed. Palestinian attacks killed Six Israelis, including four civilians and two soldiers.
Now that fighting has subsided, Egypt is working with the sides on carrying out the second phase of the agreement: negotiating new border arrangements for the impoverished coastal strip.
The negotiations will not be simple. The militants want Israel to lift what remains of its blockade of Gaza, imposed five years ago after Hamas seized control of the territory from its Western-backed rival Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. While Israel has eased the blockade in recent years, key restrictions remain in place on exports out of Gaza and the entry of badly needed building materials into the territory.
The Palestinians are hopeful that Egypt's new Islamist government will ease its own restrictions on movement in and out of the territory. Egypt still limits foot traffic through the Rafah border crossing. The militants also hope to turn the Rafah terminal into a major cargo crossing.
In return, Israel wants an end to arms smuggling into Gaza. Iranian-made weapons have made their way into Gaza through a circuitous route that ends with underground tunnels along the Egyptian border.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations with the media, said Israel is prepared to take steps to help Gaza's civilians but would be wary of doing anything that could strengthen Hamas. In particular, he said the issue of arms smuggling would be high on the agenda.
"Our assessment is that successfully preventing the rearmament of Hamas and other groups is an integral element of maintaining long-term peace and quiet," the official said.
Yasser Othman, Egypt's top diplomat in the West Bank, confirmed the talks had begun.
Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas official in Gaza, said the group's economics minister, Ziad al-Zaza, was leading the Palestinian delegation. He gave no further details, and it was unclear whether any timeline was imposed for implementing the deal.
But militant leaders already have said they will not give up the vast arsenals they have accumulated. In the recent fighting, Hamas and Islamic Jihad unveiled new rockets capable of striking deep into the Israeli heartland, in addition to anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
In an interview Monday, Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shallah said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called him and Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, to offer congratulations after their battle with Israel.
"Iran has been providing us with the support we needed to defend ourselves in the face of the Zionist occupation. Iran supported us militarily and financially and with everything we need to stand steadfast on our land," Shallah said. "We appreciate that and hope that all the Arab countries do the same."
He also said he hoped the latest fighting would inspire Palestinians in the West Bank to rise up against Israel as well.
Abbas, an outspoken critic of violence, has governed in the West Bank since Hamas overthrew his forces in Gaza in 2007. The rival governments repeatedly have failed to reconcile.
After four years of deadlock in peace efforts with Israel, Abbas this week is asking the United Nations to grant the Palestinians upgraded observer status and recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. The motion, largely symbolic, is expected to pass easily in the U.N. General Assembly.
In a statement, Hamas announced that its supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, called Abbas to welcome the decision to go to the U.N.
Israeli officials — backed by the Obama administration — strongly oppose the move in the belief it is an attempt to bypass negotiations, but they have not said how they will respond.
Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Cairo contributed to this report.