A senior Hamas official announced on Tuesday that Israel and Gaza had agreed on a cease-fire after a tumultuous week of escalating attacks, but Israel quickly denied reports that an official agreement had been reached.
Ayman Taha, a senior Hamas official and spokesman, told Reuters that “an agreement for calm has been reached. It will be declared at 9 p.m. and go into effect at midnight [10 p.m. in the UK and 5 p.m. on the U.S. East Coast].”
Taha was speaking from Cairo, where Egyptian diplomats have been working with Hamas and the Israeli government to broker a truce. Egyptian officials are clearly eager to secure a cease-fire in the conflict; President Mohamed Morsi and his top foreign affairs adviser, Essam el Haddad, both predicted this week that a deal would be reached by Tuesday.
But now it appears that Cairo officials, keen as they are to establish themselves as major players in the Middle East, were jumping the gun. Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quickly assured Reuters that Taha’s announcement was premature, and that military operations were still proceeding alongside diplomatic efforts.
During the past week, militants in Gaza have fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel, with a few long-range projectiles reaching as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in a sign that Hamas forces (along with militant groups linked to them, like the al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades and Islamic Jihad) has significantly beefed up its arms capabilities since the last major conflict with Israel in 2008. Israel has responded with aerial attacks on various sites of suspected militant operations in Gaza. At least 126 Palestinians have died in the clashes, according to Gaza health ministry estimates, as have three Israelis.
Egypt has been an ally of Israel since 1979, and has a history of playing peacemaker when Israeli forces and Palestinian militants clash. Cairo last brokered a cease-fire between the two rivals in 2008. But a diplomatic realignment may be in order since the overthrow of Western-backed President Hosni Mubarak last year.
Morsi, who was popularly elected in June, shares some ideological underpinnings with Hamas. Both are rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Arab Islamist organization that has gained more traction across the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring.
That gives a new context to the Gaza-Israel conflict, and not just for Egypt. Qatar and Turkey are also involved in truce negotiations, and all three countries are charting a new course for Middle Eastern diplomacy. Though they are allied to the United States, they have lately shown an interest in standing up for Palestinian sovereignty and easing the burden on Gaza, whose poverty-stricken population has suffered under sanctions and diplomatic isolation enforced by the West.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, formerly a close ally of Israel, called it a "terrorist state" on Monday and said his Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu would go to Gaza on Tuesday.
Qatar became the first nation ever to send a head of state to Gaza, when the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited in October.
And at the behest of Morsi, Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Qandil visited Gaza briefly on Nov. 16.
In a changing region, the West is keeping a close eye on Egypt to see how the new Islamist government finds its diplomatic footing. The United States, which has labeled Hamas a terrorist organization and therefore cannot hold formal discussions with its officials, has thrown its support behind the Morsi administration.
Meanwhile, the deadly conflict between Israel and Gaza continues and diplomatic wrangling is in full force. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Jerusalem on Tuesday and will speak with Netanyahu on Wednesday.
Netanyahu also met with U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon on Tuesday. During the meeting, the Israeli prime minister said that “if stronger military action proves necessary to stop the constant barrage of rockets, Israel will do what is necessary to defend our people."
It doesn’t seem that he and Morsi are close to any agreement on Gaza.
“The farce of the Israeli aggression will end [Tuesday] and the efforts to reach a cease-fire between the Palestinians and Israelis will produce positive results within a few hours,” Morsi said, according to Al Arabiya.
But the sun has set on Tuesday in Israel and Gaza, and it seems that Egypt’s diplomats are not quite there just yet.