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Real cease-fire or just another 'time out'?

The violence continues in Gaza while negotiations between Hamas and Israel are taking place in Egypt. An estimated 100 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed so far. NBC's John Ray reports.

Despite rumors of an imminent truce, Israel and Hamas remain miles apart in coming to a real deal. Each side is blaming the other for starting the current conflict – and both are insistent that the other stop first.

Hamas’ leader-in-exile, Khaled Meshaal, summed up his organization’s defiant position at a news conference today in Cairo: “Let those who started this crazy war stop it, on our conditions.”

Hamas says 'land war' would cost Israeli PM Netanyahu the election

Feeling the winds of the Arab Spring at its back, Hamas seems intent on emerging from this conflict stronger than when it entered it. Its conditions include an immediate lifting of Israel’s naval blockade, the opening of all its borders, an end to targeted killings and cross-border raids, and international guarantees that a new status quo will last.

At the same time, Hamas is clear that it has no intention of ending its war against Israel, whose existence it doesn’t recognize and has pledged to destroy. “Gaza’s demand is not to halt a war,” said Meshaal. “Its demand is for legitimate rights.”

Israel, meanwhile, is demanding the opposite -- that Hamas shut down all militant activity, including rocket fire by all Palestinian factions, all smuggling of weapons into Gaza -- and insists on its right to go after “terrorists” inside Gaza in the event of an attack or even a tip-off about a future strike.

In other words, they’re at loggerheads. And so, after a surge of optimism about a deal to halt the violence that has cost dozens of lives in Gaza and three in Israel, reality was settling in late Monday in Cairo.

To add to all the tension, Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported another Israeli demand: that if Hamas doesn’t respond to Israel’s demands in the next 48-72 hours, it will launch the ground offensive into Gaza.

Influence of the Arab Spring
In the past, Egypt has been a reliable broker in conflicts involving the Palestinians and Israel, but that was before the Arab Spring drove Hosni Mubarak from power and replaced him with Mohamed Morsi, formerly of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization whose sworn ambition is to restore a Palestinian state where Israel now lies.

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Morsi’s situation is nuanced. Both Hamas and Israel know that he has had to moderate his views since becoming president, in part because he doesn’t want to antagonize Egypt’s powerful military establishment, which -- like much of Egypt -- does not want to tangle with Israel and is anxious that radical Islamists not  gain a foothold in  the country. In pursuit of this, he has cracked down on militants smuggling arms across the Gaza border.

In addition, the new Egyptian leader’s task is complicated by the need to appeal to both the Islamists who elected him and the United States, which supplies billions of dollars in aid.

Egyptian critics, such as former newspaper editor Abdel Moneim Said, think Morsi is in over his head and that he can’t deliver a lasting truce. “This basically means that Egypt has essentially lost its ability to handle the conflict.” Said said. “There is no [Egyptian] mediator, this time."

That, in essence, boils down to a stare-down between Israel and Hamas: between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said that Israel is no longer interested in just another “time out,” and Hamas leaders such as Meshaal, who on Monday said, with a proud smile on his face: “We didn’t ask for a truce. The Israelis did!”

At present, a time-out is probably the best that anyone can hope for.

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Two sides exchange deadly airstrikes, rocket attacks.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London currently on assignment in Cairo. He’s covered the Middle East since the 1970s.

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