Back channel talks to end Gaza war resume after suspension, sources say

Israel reportedly demanding 2km-deep buffer zones inside enclave

Israeli soldiers check military equipment at a position on the border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday. AFP
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Indirect negotiations aimed at bringing an end to the war in Gaza have resumed after a brief suspension over this month's killing in Beirut of a senior Hamas member, with Egyptian proposals to end the three-month conflict the focus of discussions.

Sources with direct knowledge of the process told The National that Hamas and Israel were now in contact with Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators to find a way to end the fighting, sparked by a deadly attack by Hamas in southern Israel on October 7.

Hamas told Egyptian mediators it was suspending its participation in the talks only hours after the assassination on January 2 of Saleh Al Arouri, the group's deputy leader, and several senior officials.

News of the resumption of talks coincided with an Axios report that Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani on Saturday met relatives of at least six Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

It said the Qatari official told them that talking with Hamas had become more complicated since the killing of Mr Al Arouri, which is widely blamed on Israel.

The move to suspend participation in the talks, taken by Hamas’s leader in Gaza Yahya Sirwar, was made a few days after Egyptian sources reported the militant group was open to the proposals. Israel was said at the time to be studying the proposals put forward by mediators, but has also remained firm on its demands.

The sources said Hamas leaders had withheld their final approval of the proposals pending guarantees that Israel would agree to a permanent ceasefire after the Egyptian plan’s two-month timeline ends.

Egypt's draft peace plan

The draft plan approved in principle by Hamas has three stages which, if approved, would have Egypt, the US and Qatar as its guarantors.

The first stage provides for a 20-day ceasefire during which Hamas would release the children, the elderly, women and the ailing from among the estimated 130 hostages it is still holding in Gaza. Israel would in return free a number of Palestinians held in its jails, a figure yet to be agreed on.

During the ceasefire, Israel would refrain from all aerial activity over Gaza, including drone and reconnaissance flights.

The second phase would last 10 days, during which the ceasefire would continue. Hamas would release female Israeli soldiers in exchange for another batch of Palestinians from Israeli prisons.

Israel would also withdraw its forces from Gaza’s urban areas and allow substantial humanitarian assistance to enter the coastal enclave.

Gaza’s 2.3 million residents would be allowed to move freely inside the territory, except for areas where Israeli forces are stationed.

The third phase is a month-long window to negotiate a final prisoner and hostage swap in which Hamas would free male Israeli soldiers in return for a yet to be determined number of Palestinian detainees, including high-profile figures serving life sentences.

Also, Israel would completely pull out from the densely packed strip.

The sources said Israel has since conveyed its insistence that two “buffer zones” 2,000 metres deep inside the northern and eastern flanks of Gaza be created to deny Hamas direct access to Israeli territory.

Hamas had previously rejected those demands. A counterproposal being floated now speaks of security personnel belonging to the moderate, West Bank-based Palestinian Authority deployed in those buffer zones as a compromise.

Other Israeli demands, according to the sources, include placing restrictions on the movement of Palestinians from the south of the coastal enclave to the north of the territory until a permanent ceasefire is in force and Israeli forces have pulled out.

The sources had earlier said the proposed deal was likely to have clauses that would not be publicised.

Foremost of these would be language linked to envisaged arrangements for Gaza’s governance and security after the cessation of hostilities.

Likely to be kept confidential also are security assurances demanded by Israel to ensure it would not suffer a repeat of the October 7 attack by Hamas in southern Israel that left 1,200 dead in what was its deadliest day since its creation in 1948.

The surprise attack by Hamas militants and the capture of 240 hostages triggered a devastating response by Israel, whose relentless bombardment of Gaza since has killed more than 22,000 people, laid to waste large built-up areas in the territory and displaced 1.9 million of its 2.3 million residents.

Egypt, the US and Qatar mediated a week-long truce between Hamas and Israel that ended on December 1. During that truce, a prisoner and hostages swap was arranged and humanitarian aid was allowed into Gaza.

Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, borders both Gaza and Israel. It has maintained a working relationship with Hamas leaders despite its zero-tolerance policy for political Islam at home.

Like Egypt, Qatar is a close US ally but is also home to Hamas’s political leaders and maintains informal links to Israel.

Updated: January 07, 2024, 8:30 PM