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Negotiations involving Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the US are under way for a three-day truce to allow humanitarian aid, including fuel, to enter Gaza in exchange for the release of some of the hostages held by Hamas, according to Egyptian officials.
They said the proposed truce would be guaranteed and overseen by the US.
In Cairo, three top Hamas leaders – Ismail Haniyeh, Khaled Meshaal and Khalil Al Hayya – met on Thursday with the chief of Egypt's intelligence agency Gen Abbas Kamel and his top aides to discuss details of the proposed deal, according to the officials.
Gen Kamel's Directorate of General Intelligence has for years been in charge of the “Palestinian-Israeli file”, with its senior operatives mediating truces to end bouts of violence between Israel and Hamas and seeking to reconcile rival Palestinian factions as well.
Gen Kamel is also known to be a confidant of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, a former army general.
Under the proposed deal, the dispatch of much larger relief supplies into the Gaza Strip, where at least 10,500 people have been killed in more than four weeks of relentless Israeli bombardment, would be co-ordinated by Egypt, which shares a border with Israel and Gaza in the Sinai Peninsula, the officials added.
The officials did not have an exact number of the hostages who would be released under the proposed deal but suggested it could be anywhere between 20 and 50, including US citizens. The hostages to be released would include women, children and elderly persons and freed in batches.
Hamas also want women and children held in Israeli jails to be released under the proposed deal and that Israeli forces already inside Gaza are not reinforced or redeployed during the truce.
Barring unforeseen developments, the deal could be announced on Thursday or Friday, they said.
There has been no official word from any of the four countries involved in the negotiations or from Hamas, which is not surprising given the secrecy and delicacy of the process.
If implemented, the deal would significantly reduce the suffering of Gaza's 2.3 million people. The Palestinian territory has been under a complete Israeli siege since the war began on October 7 when a deadly rampage by Hamas militants in southern Israel left more than 1,400 people dead, the bloodiest single day in Israel's history.
The militants also took about 240 hostages back to Gaza.
Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and maintains a working relationship with Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza. Like Egypt, Qatar is a close US ally that has close relations with Hamas's political leaders and is one of the impoverished territory's main benefactors.
Limited relief supplies – mostly food, water and medicines – have been sent to Gaza through the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt since October 21, but the UN says the amounts involved are a drop in the ocean given the needs of the tiny coastal enclave.
Israel has so far refused the entry of fuel for fear it could be used by Hamas for military purposes. The UN says fuel is desperately needed to keep hospitals and water treatment plants working.