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Fate of Gaza truce in balance as death toll tops 2,000

The Gaza death toll rose above 2,000 on Monday (Aug 18) as the clock ticked towards a midnight deadline and negotiators in Cairo strove to forge a decisive end to weeks of bloodshed.

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: The Gaza death toll rose above 2,000 on Monday (Aug 18) as the clock ticked towards a midnight deadline and negotiators in Cairo strove to forge a decisive end to weeks of bloodshed.

As millions in and around Gaza enjoyed an eighth day of calm brought on by two back-to-back truces, tensions were once again on the rise ahead of a new deadline ending a five-day ceasefire which expires at 2100 GMT.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel will hit back hard if Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza resume. "We are ready for all scenarios ... the army is ready to respond with force if the firing (of rockets) resumes," he said in a meeting with Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon.

There is little sign of any workable consensus emerging from ongoing talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Cairo. The warring parties have just hours left to either reach an agreement, accept a further extension or risk a resumption of the fighting which has wreaked destruction across the densely populated Mediterranean coastal enclave.

The aim is to broker a long-term arrangement to halt more than a month of bloody fighting which erupted on July 8, although both sides have largely lowered their guns since August 4 thanks to a series of temporary truces.

Ahead of the deadline, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was travelling to Doha for talks with exiled Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and the Qatari emir. Qatar is a key backer of Hamas, the de facto ruler of Gaza.

As diplomatic efforts intensified, Gaza's health ministry said the death toll from the fighting rose above 2,000 as more people died of their wounds. The figures showed 2,016 people had been killed and 10,196 wounded. Among the dead were 541 children, 250 women and 95 elderly men. Separately, the Israeli army confirmed that five of its 64 dead soldiers were killed by "friendly fire".

'NO POSITIVE RESULTS'

Despite concern over the looming deadline, the streets of Gaza City were bustling with women and children shopping for food as men sat outside in the shade.

With the negotiations in their final stretch, meetings at the Egyptian intelligence headquarters resumed at 1200 GMT, but there was little indication that either side was willing to back down on its demands.

"The fifth day of the ceasefire and the negotiations between the resistance and the Zionist enemy ends today," Hamas's exiled deputy leader Mussa Abu Marzuk wrote on Facebook shortly before the talks began. "No positive results until now. Everything will be decided on the ground."

Netanyahu has said Israel would only accept an agreement which contained "a clear answer" to its security needs, while Hamas has insisted there will be no deal without an end to Israel's eight-year blockade on Gaza.

Following talks with Meshaal in Doha, Abbas will travel to Cairo later in the week to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a Palestinian official told AFP.

In Israel, in the absence of concrete information emerging from the talks, most commentators were pessimistic about the an agreement by midnight, saying the gaps are simply too big.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, a hardline member of the security cabinet, said Israel should "immediately" abandon its attempt to talk, albeit indirectly, with Hamas.

"We have to stop the negotiations... and take our fate into our own hands, based on very simple parameters: humanitarian aid 'yes', terror 'no'," he told army radio. "We do not conduct negotiations, not even indirectly, with people who use terror against us directly."

UNILATERAL EASING

In an indication Israel was shifting its thinking away from a negotiated truce agreement, it began implementing a series of unilateral measures to ease conditions in Gaza.

On Sunday, Israel said it had lifted a total ban on fishing which had been in place since July 8, allowing boats to go out to sea for up to three nautical miles.

Down at the fishing port, a few fishermen could be seen taking their boats out for an early catch, although they kept close to shore, well within the new limit, an AFP correspondent said.

The talks are centred on an Egyptian proposal for a lasting ceasefire, which postpones discussions on the thorniest issues, such as Hamas demands for a seaport and airport in Gaza, for another month.

Negotiations on exchanging the remains of two Israeli soldiers for the release of Palestinian prisoners would also be delayed for a month.

Meanwhile, Israel's Shin Bet internal security agency confirmed that between May and August it had arrested 93 Hamas activists in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem, 46 of whom were interrogated by the agency.

It also said it confiscated 600,000 shekels ($170,000/128,000 euros) from the Islamist movement's coffers, along with 24 rifles, six pistols, seven rocket launchers and a lot of ammunition.

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