CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt asked Israel on Monday to accept a ceasefire as a first step toward comprehensive negotiations with Palestinian factions to end more than three weeks of fighting, Egyptian and Palestinian sources said.
Palestinian groups, including envoys of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, met the head of Egyptian intelligence in Cairo earlier in the day to formulate a plan to end the violence that has displaced more than one quarter of Gaza's 1.8 million people.
Immediately after the meeting, Egypt presented Israel with the key Palestinian demands: a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, an end to the blockade of the impoverished enclave and the reconstruction of the area.
An Egyptian diplomatic source said Cairo expected Israel to accept a temporary halt to the fighting to allow for talks.
"We are working to reach a ceasefire agreement and we are expecting Israel to approve a ceasefire for a few days," he said. "Egypt will announce that as soon as we get Israel's approval."Israel has yet to give a formal response to the ceasefire plan, but an Israeli official who declined to be named said it could accept a ceasefire without preconditions.
"If we receive a proposal based on the Egyptian plan of a ceasefire without preconditions which will include rehabilitation of Gaza in exchange for disarmament, Israel will consider this favourably with a view to accepting it," he said.
Israel began aerial and naval bombardment of Gaza on July 8 after what it said was a surge of cross-border rocket salvoes by Hamas and others and it later sent in ground forces.
It has already begun to wind down its offensive, saying the army had completed the main objective of the ground assault, the destruction of cross-border infiltration tunnels from Gaza.
With its goals met, Israel is seen as more likely to come to accept an end to the fighting in which Gaza officials say 1,804 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed.
Israel has confirmed that 64 of its soldiers have died in combat, while Palestinian shelling has killed three civilians in Israel.
A Palestinian official affiliated with one of the militant factions said a temporary ceasefire would open the door to more comprehensive negotiations.
"Should Israel agree to the 72-hour ceasefire, Egypt would invite Israel to send a delegation to Cairo to conduct indirect negotiations with the Palestinian delegation over all issues," he said.
Egypt has positioned itself as a mediator in successive Gaza conflicts but, like Israel, it opposes Hamas and has struggled to seal a deal to end the latest fighting.
Media speculation that U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns would fly to Egypt to participate in indirect truce talks had not been borne out by Monday.
A U.S. embassy spokesman declined to say if or when Burns might arrive. A U.S. official in Washington said acting special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations Frank Lowenstein was on his way back from Cairo, suggesting the United States was following the talks closely.
A U.S.- and U.N.-brokered ceasefire broke down within two hours on Friday, with Israel and Hamas trading blame.
A Hamas source in Doha said the group would not lay down arms unless Palestinian conditions were met.
Qatar, a backer of Hamas, has stayed out of the Egypt talks, but has continued consultations with Turkey and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry aimed at finding an end to the crisis should Egypt fail, a Gulf source and the Hamas official in Doha said.
For its part, Cairo might contemplate easing the limited freedom of movement across its own border with Gaza, but was unlikely to accept Palestinian calls to allow a normal flow of trade, Egyptian diplomatic sources said.
Egypt insists that any discussion over the Rafah border crossing take place bilaterally with the Palestinian Authority rather than as part of any overall deal between the Palestinians and Israel to ease the blockade, the sources said.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Amena Bakr in Doha; Editing by Gareth Jones)