US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators assess modified proposals to end Israel-Gaza war

Latest plan involves three-month ceasefire, Israeli withdrawal and exchange of detainees and hostages

Most of the 2.3 million people in Gaza have been displaced in the war with Israel. Reuters
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Negotiators from the US, Egypt, Qatar and Israel are looking at new, heavily modified proposals to end the Gaza war, sources with direct knowledge of the process told The National on Monday.

A bargain could involve a three-month ceasefire, an exchange of detainees and hostages and an Israeli withdrawal, followed by a handover to an interim Palestinian government in Gaza.

Deliberation began after officials from Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency and the CIA arrived in Egypt at the weekend in a renewed bid to bring an end to the Gaza war.

The new proposals, they explained, stem from an Egyptian draft that was under discussion last month but failed to win the approval of Israel and Hamas, whose fighters prompted the war when they and other Gaza militants attacked southern Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 and taking 240 hostage.

The renewed drive comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have hardened his position on proposals to end the war, dimming hopes for a resolution to a conflict in which more than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed and most of the enclave’s 2.3 million population displaced.

The war has also laid waste to large built-up areas and created a major humanitarian crisis that is pushing the enclave to the brink of famine.

“In exchange for the release of our hostages, Hamas demands the end of the war, the withdrawal of our forces from Gaza, the release of all the murderers and rapists,” Mr Netanyahu said in a statement late on Sunday.

“I reject outright the terms of surrender of the monsters of Hamas … I will not compromise on full Israeli security control of all territory west of the Jordan River.”

US President Joe Biden on Friday said he had spoken to Mr Netanyahu about possible solutions for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, suggesting one path could involve a non-militarised government.

On Monday, the EU joined Mr Biden in demanding Israel agrees to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Speaking ahead of talks with senior Israeli and Palestinian ministers, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told Israel it could not build peace and stability "only by military means".

"What we want to do is to build a two-state solution, so let's talk about it," he said.

In response to the Israeli leader’s comments, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Mr Netanyahu's refusal to end his military onslaught in Gaza “means there is no chance for the return of the [Israeli] captives".

Under a deal brokered in November by the US and its allies Qatar and Egypt, more than 100 of the hostages held in Gaza were freed in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Since then, Mr Netanyahu has faced mounting pressure to secure the release of 136 hostages who are thought to remain in captivity.

“Negotiating a new deal is proving much more difficult, with both the Israeli and Palestinian sides far apart on the details,” said one of the sources. “It does not help that Israel is divided over what’s next in Gaza and Hamas is fraught with tension between leaders who remain in Gaza and those in exile.”

The sources said the modified proposals speak of a three-month ceasefire during which Israel would embark on a phased withdrawal of its forces from Gaza.

The proposed pullout would take place in tandem with the return of Palestinians who fled their homes in northern and central Gaza and are now crammed in the southern part of the enclave, the sources said.

The plans include an exchange of detainees and hostages, with Hamas initially releasing about 40 women, children and elderly in return for an as yet unspecified number of Palestinians.

Hamas wants those to be released from Israeli prisons to include high-profile figures such as the popular Fatah stalwart Marwan Barghouti who is serving a life sentence for murder and a host of field commanders from Hamas’s military wing.

Those, according to the proposals, would be released in the last batch in exchange for Israeli military personnel held by Hamas.

The exchanges, which would also be phased, would include female Israeli soldiers – of which five are believed to be held – and the remains of Israeli soldiers or civilians killed on October 7 or in the ensuing war in Gaza since.

The proposals also envisage the deployment of a multinational force in the stretch of land running along the Egypt-Gaza border on the Palestinian side, known as the “Philadelphia corridor”.

This proposal counters suggestions recently made by Israel that it wants to bring the corridor under its control to halt what it claims to be the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.

Israel, for its part, is demanding that Hamas’s network of tunnels, which have for years been used to attack Israel, be demolished in their entirety, the sources said.

The proposals also envisage an interim Palestinian government to run Gaza at the end of the three-month ceasefire. Egypt and Hamas insist the militant group is made a part of this administration, whose tenure would end when presidential and legislative elections are held at some stage in the future.

Egypt will use the three-month ceasefire, to be guaranteed by all the mediating countries, to preside over a reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions, a vital but elusive goal before the formation of the interim government, the sources said.

Egypt, which borders both Israel and Gaza, has repeatedly tried and failed to reconcile Hamas and Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian faction that dominates the Palestinian Authority, which has limited autonomy over parts of the occupied West Bank.

Hamas has ruled Gaza since its operatives threw Fatah out of the territory in a brief civil war in 2007, two years after Israel unilaterally pulled out of the enclave it had occupied for 38 years.

Updated: January 22, 2024, 12:02 PM