Egypt is trying to broker a broad cease-fire deal between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers that is to pave the way for Gaza's reconstruction and an eventual prisoner swap, senior Hamas officials said Thursday.
Repeated cease-fire deals over the years collapsed, but there were signs of possible momentum toward a new agreement, after weeks of escalation along the Gaza-Israel frontier.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to put off a trip to Colombia to keep an eye on the situation in Gaza, a government official said Thursday.
Israel's Security Cabinet is set to convene on Sunday in an underground bunker in the Jerusalem area in order to discuss a wide-scale arrangement on the Gaza Strip. The ministers will be briefed on the discussions held under the auspices of UN Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov and the Egyptians.
Separately, a high-level Hamas delegation entered Gaza Thursday evening through the Rafah border crossing after holding talks in Cairo on the reconciliation agreement with Fatah as well as a possible ceasefire with Israel.
Most of the Hamas leadership is based in Gaza but is being joined by exiled members of the group's political bureau, including Saleh al-Arouri, a founder of the Hamas military wing in the West Bank and a mastermind of violent attacks against Israelis in the past; Hamas's spokesman abroad Husam Badran; senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk; and Hamas official Izzat al-Rishq.
Deputy Hamas leader in Gaza, Khalil al-Hayya, accompanied the delegation to Cairo and returned with it to Gaza on Thursday.
"Permitting a delegation with this level to come to Gaza is a clear sign that there are first of all guarantees that the delegation will not be targeted by the Israelis, and a sign that there are serious meetings to be held in Gaza," said Bassem Naim, a Gaza-based Hamas official.
He said Hamas officials would try to "conclude the progress that has been made on files such as the truce," as well as a UN-led rebuilding of Gaza and possible reconciliation between Hamas and its domestic political rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Naim said the Hamas leaders would also talk about a possible prisoner swap with Israel.
Two other senior Hamas officials confirmed the outlines of the deal proposed by Egypt. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details of closed-door negotiations.
It's not clear what role Abbas would play in Gaza, if any. He has said in the past that he would only resume responsibility for Gaza if Hamas agrees to hand over all authority there, including over security. Hamas has been unwilling to do so.
Gaza has endured a crippling border blockade by Israel and Egypt, imposed after Hamas seized the territory in 2007. In recent months, Hamas has become more desperate amid mounting financial pressure, including from Abbas. Gaza's 2 million people have had to contend with electricity shortages, rising unemployment and growing poverty.
Despite renewed cease-fire efforts, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that, starting Thursday, he is halting shipments of fuel and natural gas to Gaza in response to incendiary balloons that have targeted southern Israel.
Israel also suspended fuel shipments to Gaza temporarily in July for similar reasons.
Incendiary balloons and kites, many set off during border protests organized by Hamas, have caused fires that have devastated southern Israel's farmland and forests.
Since late March, thousands of Gaza residents have participated in frequent protests along Israel's perimeter fence, in part to try to break the blockade.
Itamar Eichner and Elior Levy contributed to this report.