THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Hamas leader emerges from hiding to lead cease-fire talks

Cairo to mediate indirect meetings with group, Israel

Palestinians stood near a crater yesterday made by an Israeli airstrike near the border of Egypt and Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. The offensive was in response to rockets fired on Israel. Palestinians stood near a crater yesterday made by an Israeli airstrike near the border of Egypt and Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. The offensive was in response to rockets fired on Israel. (Eyad Baba/associated press)
By Ibrahim Barzak
Associated Press / February 8, 2009
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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - One of Gaza's top two leaders emerged yesterday from six weeks in hiding, leading a Hamas delegation to Egypt for cease-fire talks and reiterating that the Islamic militant group is "flexible" over who should lead reconstruction in the devastated territory.

Mahmoud Zahar and three other Hamas officials crossed from Gaza into Egypt yesterday, en route to Cairo.

Egypt is mediating indirect talks between Israel and Hamas to reach a durable truce. Hamas wants Israel and Egypt to lift their 20-month border blockade of Gaza, while Israel wants improved guarantees that Hamas will be prevented from smuggling weapons into Gaza.

On the Egyptian side, Zahar told reporters Hamas would be flexible about who will take charge of reconstruction. Thousands of homes and buildings were destroyed or damaged during the war, causing an estimated $2 billion in damages.

Hamas initially insisted it should supervise the spending. However, international donors are reluctant to hand huge sums to the Islamic militants.

"We are flexible on who should be in charge of rebuilding," said Zahar who, apparently fearing assassination, had been in hiding during the three-week offensive and even after a tentative cease-fire took hold in mid-January.

The Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, still has not appeared in public.

In the West Bank, Hamas's rival, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, said yesterday that he will transfer $50 million in emergency aid to Gazans whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the offensive.

The UN is putting together a detailed report on the war damage. It is to be presented to donor countries in Egypt on March 2. The conference is expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for rebuilding Gaza. Fayyad said the emergency payments will be taken from the current Palestinian budget.

Israel unilaterally halted its three-week military offensive on Jan. 18, and Hamas militants also stopped firing a day later, but the two sides have not agreed on the terms of a cease-fire. Sporadic violence has continued since.

On Friday, Israeli warplanes struck four smuggling tunnels and a weapons depot in the area of the Gaza-Egypt border, the Israeli military said. The airstrikes came in response to two rockets fired from Gaza on Israel.

One of Israel's top goals in the Egypt-mediated contacts with Hamas is to win the return of Gilad Schalit, a tank crewman held by Hamas in Gaza since he was captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006.

Hamas is demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in return. In a television interview yesterday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak answered yes when asked if Schalit's release had grown closer. "A supreme effort is being made to speed up the process," he said during a TV interview. In other developments, UN and Hamas officials met in Gaza late Friday, after Hamas police seized 10 trucks with UN aid shipments, including rice and flour. In response, the UN suspended aid shipments.

Earlier in the week, Hamas police had seized thousands of blankets and food parcels earmarked for UN distribution to needy residents.

Ahmed Kurd, Hamas's minister of social affairs, said the UN trucks were not marked and Hamas officials believed the goods were sent by Egyptian charities, meant to be given straight to Hamas.

UN officials said yesterday they would not lift their freeze on aid shipments until all 10 trucks were returned.

Some 80 percent of Gaza's 1.4 million people rely on the UN agency for food or other support. Their needs have increased after Israel's military operation.

In Turkey, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for humanitarian aid for Palestinians, saying that aid shipments so far met only one-fifth of the actual need.

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