US envoy in Egypt to drive efforts to mediate a pause in Gaza war

Hamas is insisting on a permanent ceasefire and a complete Israeli withdrawal, sources say

Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers i southern Israel on the border with the Gaza Strip on Wednesday. Getty Images
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US President Joe Biden's Middle East envoy Brett McGurk is in Cairo to try to help mediate a truce between Hamas and Israel and to discuss the escalating attacks in the Red Sea, sources told The National on Wednesday.

The senior US diplomat is in the Egyptian capital with the aim of accelerating efforts by American, Egyptian and Qatari mediators to set up a truce in Gaza, they said,

The sources said that Mr McGurk held separate discussions with Egyptian officials over the security of the Red Sea, where attacks on shipping by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi forces have disrupted global trade and created a regional crisis.

The US envoy was also offering Egypt reassurances over recent suggestions by Israel to take over a stretch of land that runs along the Gaza side of Egypt’s border with the coastal enclave in the Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt, a close US ally that signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, responded angrily to the suggestions, saying such a move would hurt relations with Israel.

Mr McGurk met on Tuesday with Egyptian Defence Minister Gen Mohammed Zaki, according to a statement by the military. “The meeting dealt with current conditions in the Gaza Strip and their impact on the security and stability of the Middle East,” but gave no details.

The visit to Cairo, however, was primarily focused on persuading Hamas and Israel to agree to a pause in the fighting during which a prisoner and hostage swap could take place.

The Gaza war began when Hamas fighters attacked southern Israel on October 7, killing about 1,300 people and taking back to the territory about 450 hostages.

The attack provoked a devastating onslaught by Israel that has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians, displaced more than 80 per cent of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents and laid to waste large parts of the strip's built-up areas.

A truce mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar in late November secured the release of several hundred Palestinians held in Israeli prisons and scores of hostages captured by Hamas.

The truce lasted one week but has not been renewed.

The number of hostages still being held in Gaza is estimated at about 132 Israelis. Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are estimated to number at least 6,000, including high-profile figures sentenced to life for murder.

“Certainly, one of the things he's in the region talking about is the potential for another hostage deal, which would require a humanitarian pause of some length,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in Washington of Mr McGurk’s visit to the region.

“The conversations are very sober and serious about trying to get another hostage deal,” he added.

The sources, however, said Hamas is insisting that it will accept only a permanent ceasefire and not the pause the US is proposing. Hamas also wants a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and a pledge not to target the enclave again.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said his country intended to be in control of security in Gaza after it achieves its goal of destroying Hamas and its military and governance capabilities.

The sources said Egyptian mediators were in direct contact with Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar, who they said was behind the hard-line position taken by the group.

Also demanded by the Palestinian group is a timeline for the prisoner and hostage swap that would eventually lead to all hostages and prisoners freed, the sources added.

Hostages still in Gaza include women, elderly people and ailing Israelis as well as active military service members, including at least five female soldiers. Hamas is also holding the remains of at least 20 people killed on October 7 or in the subsequent bombardment of Gaza by Israel.

Moreover, Hamas is seeking international guarantees of the proposed ceasefire and the prisoner and hostage swap.

“There is a great deal of frustration and anger among Hamas’s leaders since the assassination of Saleh Al Aruri,” one of the sources said, alluding to the senior Hamas leader killed in a suspected Israeli strike in Beirut on January 2.

A Reuters report on Wednesday appeared to agree with the information obtained by The National. It said Hamas and Israel were at odds over how to permanently end the Gaza war, and that Hamas has refused to move forward until this is resolved.

Israeli spokesman Eylon Levy said on Tuesday there would be no ceasefire that would leave Hamas in power and the hostages captured, in Gaza.

The latest flurry of diplomatic activity is taking place as fighting in Gaza intensifies, with Israeli forces staging their biggest military operation in a month as they try to capture the southern city of Khan Younis, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

Israeli tanks on Tuesday shut the road from Khan Younis to the Mediterranean coast, blocking the escape route for civilians trying to reach Rafah on Gaza's southern edge bordering Egypt – now crammed with more than half the enclave's 2.3 million people.

The military said on Wednesday it had killed numerous squads of gunmen “with sniper, tank and aerial fire” in western Khan Younis, a new focus of its operations, close to the city's two main hospitals.

Israel says it has killed about 9,000 militants. Hamas officials dismissed Israeli figures as an attempt to “portray a fake victory”.

Updated: January 24, 2024, 4:05 PM