By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH
Gaza’s ruling Hamas will not stop arming itself, the No. 2 in the Palestinian group told The Associated Press on Saturday, signaling tough challenges ahead for indirect negotiations between Israel and the Islamist militants on a new border deal for Gaza.
The talks are being brokered by Egypt, which also helped forge a cease-fire deal that ended eight days of Israel-Gaza fighting earlier this week.
The truce went into effect late Wednesday and has largely held. Residents in Gaza said Israel has begun easing some border restrictions, allowing fishermen to head further out to sea and permitting farmers inspect land in a former no-go zone.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, deputy to Hamas’ top leader in exile Khaled Mashaal, said talks on a further easing of restrictions are to be held in Cairo on Monday. Hamas and Israel do not meet directly and the indirect talks are held through Egyptian intermediaries.
An Israeli security official has said Israel would likely link a significant easing of Gaza’s border blockade to Hamas’ willingness to stop arming itself. Israeli officials were not immediately available for comment Saturday.
However, Abu Marzouk rejected such demands. “These weapons protected us and there is no way to stop obtaining and manufacturing them,” he said in an interview at his office on the outskirts of Cairo.
Hamas officials in Gaza have said they have developed a local arms industry. Mashaal said earlier this week that the group has received weapons from Iran since Israel’s last Gaza offensive four years ago.
Hamas smuggles such weapons into Gaza through tunnels under the border with Egypt.
Israel and Hamas have clashed repeatedly over the years, most recently in the cross-border battle that began Nov. 14.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Gaza children returned to school Saturday for the first time since fighting ended late Wednesday. About half of Gaza’s 1.6 million people are children.
In 245 U.N.-run schools, the day was dedicated to letting children share what they experienced, in hopes of helping them deal with trauma, educators said.
In a sixth-grade class in Gaza City, boys eagerly raised their hands when asked by their science teacher to share their stories in the presence of a reporter. Mohammed Abu Sakr, 11, said that earlier this week, he witnessed an Israeli missile striking a car and engulfing it in flames. The boy said he had trouble sleeping and eating afterwards, and still feels scared.
Thirty-four children and minors under the age of 18 were among those killed in the fighting, said Gaza health officials and local human rights groups. A total of 156 Palestinians were killed during the fighting and 10 died later of their wounds, they said.
The exchanges of fire were the bloodiest between Israel and Hamas in four years. Israel launched the offensive to put an end to escalating Gaza rocket fire on Israeli towns. Israel said it reached its objectives, while Hamas claimed victory because Israel didn’t make good on threats to send ground troops into the territory, as it had done four years earlier.
Israel’s air force carried out some 1,500 strikes on Hamas-linked targets, while Gaza militants fired roughly the same number of rockets, including some targeting the Israeli heartland cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time.
The truce is to lead to a new border deal for Gaza, with Egypt hosting indirect talks between Israel and Hamas. Israel has shunned Hamas as a terrorist group and refuses to negotiate with it directly.
After the Hamas takeover in 2007, Israel and then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sealed Gaza to isolate the Islamic militants and make it harder for them to govern.
The restrictions have since been eased because of international pressure on Israel and because of regime change in Egypt. Both Hamas and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, elected earlier this year, are members of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Before the Nov. 14 start of the fighting, Gaza received most of its consumer goods through an Israeli cargo crossing, while Israel banned virtually all exports and travel from Gaza, preventing the area’s battered economy from bouncing back.
Items restricted by Israel, such as construction materials, were brought into Gaza through smuggling tunnels from Egypt, along with weapons for Hamas.
Israel also restricted the movement of Gaza’s fishermen and farmers in border areas, citing security concerns.
On Saturday, fishermen were able to sail six nautical miles out to sea, or double the previous limit, said Mahfouz Kabariti, head of the local fishermen’s association. He said several fishermen already made the journey Saturday.
Israeli navy boats have been enforcing a sea blockade in an attempt to prevent weapons smuggling to Gaza. The restrictions on fishermen have fluctuated over the years, linked to the ups and downs in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Meanwhile, some Gaza residents said they were able to enter an Israeli-enforced buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border Saturday with Israel without fear of being fired on.
Israel’s military carved out a 300-meter-wide (300-yard-wide) zone several years to try to prevent militants from sneaking into Israel. The zone gobbled up scarce acres of farmland in one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
On Friday, hundreds of Palestinians surged toward the border fence, but Israeli soldiers fired to push them back, killing one man and wounding at least 19 people.
On Saturday, 42-year-old farmer Nidal Abu Dakka said soldiers stood and watched as he and others moved close to the fence. Abu Dakka, speaking by phone, said he was inspecting his land, some 60 meters from the border, and planned to plant wheat and barley soon.
In other border areas, residents said Hamas police kept them away from the fence.
An Israeli government spokesman said he was unaware restrictions had been eased. A defense official said the Israeli military was no longer enforcing the no-go zone, but reserved the right to act against suspicious people. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the issue with reporters.
Associated Press writers Karin Laub, Sarah El Deeb and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City contributed reporting.