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Negotiators are working behind the scenes for a new truce between Israel and Hamas


Negotiators are working behind the scenes for a new agreement between two old enemies, Israel and Hamas. It's been six months since they fought an 11-day war of Israeli airstrikes and militant rocket fire. They've had a shaky cease-fire since then. Recently, Israel has taken steps to allow more reconstruction materials into Gaza and more people out. NPR's Daniel Estrin went to see how that works.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: While Hamas holds its fire, Israel is offering Gaza some sweeteners.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv.

ESTRIN: At the border with Israel, the door has creaked open a bit for Palestinian day laborers. Minibus drivers shout out Israeli cities and the laborers board the minibuses hoping to find work. Israel is now allowing in 10,000 Palestinian workers from Gaza, not enough to truly lift up Gaza's economy but still the highest number in years. Here's a gesture Israel didn't denounce happening under the radar - Israel allowed more construction materials into Gaza to repair homes damaged by Israeli airstrikes in the recent war.

These guys are laying floor tiles for the living room. This apartment near the sea was hit by Israeli rockets and is being rebuilt with money from Malaysia.

KHALIL HABIB: I'm happy.

ESTRIN: Khalil Habib lives in the building.

HABIB: Now it's much better than previous. After the damage happened, it was miserable.

ESTRIN: The United Nations is giving Gaza families small grants from European donors to repair damaged homes. But Israel won't allow large-scale reconstruction yet. Israel worries Hamas can use construction materials for tunnels and rockets like they fired at Israel before. And there are other conditions.


BENNY GANTZ: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has a mantra he's repeated in speeches and interviews - the Gaza Strip will not be rehabilitated unless there is long-term quiet and, quote, "the return of the boys." Hamas has the bodies of two Israeli soldiers from a 2014 war, plus two civilians who strayed into Gaza on their own and are believed to be alive.


ESTRIN: In downtown Gaza City, a Hamas billboard promises to liberate Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. Some of them are convicted of deadly attacks against Israel. Now, Israel and Hamas are working toward a swap, as they did 10 years ago. But Hamas spokesman Basem Naim is pessimistic Israel's new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who runs a fragile coalition, can sign off on an exchange.

BASEM NAIM: Hamas is ready and have already presented a lot of offers to achieve prisoner deal. But I think the Israelis are not ready today because of their maybe - maybe because of their internal political fragility to take such a very courageous and - to pay the high price of a prisoner deal.

ESTRIN: He smiles when he mentions the flurry of international diplomats who have been meeting with Hamas. That increased contact is a change. Many countries consider Hamas a terrorist group. Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade restricting travel and trade for the 2 million Gazans under Hamas rule. But now Egypt's been hosting separate talks with Israel and Hamas.

MKHAIMAR ABUSADA: What I can tell you is that it's definitely - it's not rumors. Something is cooking. Something is in the process.

ESTRIN: Gaza political analyst Mkhaimar Abusada says Hamas wants a prisoner swap, a long-term truce and reconstruction. But he says they're not in a rush.

ABUSADA: That's something that you need to know about Hamas. They don't care if negotiations with Israel takes years. Their long-term strategy that this place will be under Hamas control, I don't want to say forever but for a long time to come.

ESTRIN: These aren't negotiations for Hamas to give up its control over Gaza or for Israel and Egypt to end their restrictive blockade on Gaza. The aim is to give Palestinians in Gaza slightly better lives and put off the next war a little bit longer.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Gaza City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROHNE'S "THE SPARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.