Cairo demands permanent Gaza ceasefire ahead of Paris meeting with US, Qatar and Israel

Proposed agreement involves phased hostage release and increased aid to besieged enclave, sources say

Displaced Palestinians receive food aid in Rafah, southern Gaza, on Sunday. AFP
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Egypt has told Washington that a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and a phased but full detainee and hostage swap will be essential elements of any agreement to end the three-month-old war between Israel and Hamas, sources have told The National.

Cairo's position was conveyed to US officials before a meeting in Paris on Sunday between the chiefs of the US, Egyptian and Israeli intelligence agencies and the Qatari Prime Minister.

The meeting, which has not been officially announced by any of the four parties, is expected to discuss a deal to pause the fighting in Gaza for two months and secure the release of about 130 hostages held by Hamas.

Two White House officials told Reuters over the weekend that the proposed agreement would play out in two phases.

In the first phase, fighting would stop to allow Hamas to release the remaining female, elderly and wounded hostages.

During the first 30 days of the pause, Israel and Hamas would aim to work out the details of a second exchange during which Israeli soldiers and male civilians would be released. The agreement also requires Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

While the proposed deal would not end the war, US officials are hopeful that it could lay the groundwork for a durable resolution to the conflict, Reuters reported.

Egypt’s insistence on a permanent ceasefire, an agreement to exchange the remaining hostages held by Hamas for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, and a phased withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza mirror Hamas's demands.

The militant group has told Egyptian mediators that it is not prepared to entertain, let alone agree to, a deal that does not include these three conditions, the sources said.

Egypt, Qatar and the US mediated a truce in late November, when about 100 hostages were exchanged for hundreds of Palestinian detainees.

The truce ended on December 1, and fighting resumed in Gaza. Israel has been conducting an air and ground campaign in the coastal enclave since October 7, when Hamas militants launched deadly attacks on southern Israeli communities, killing about 1,200 and taking about 240 hostages.

More than 26,400 Palestinians have been killed during the war in Gaza, where large areas have been razed to the ground and most of the territory’s 2.3 million residents displaced.

Egypt has repeatedly called for a ceasefire followed by the establishment of an interim administration to govern Gaza throughout its reconstruction and efforts to reconcile rival Palestinian factions. This would be followed by presidential and legislative elections across the Palestinian territories.

“The Hamas leadership in Gaza went off the grid last week for at least two days to make clear its rejection of suggestions that there will only be a pause, not a permanent ceasefire,” one of the sources told The National.

“Yahya Sinwar [Hamas's leader in Gaza] has also told the group's leaders in Qatar and Lebanon to toe the same line and not to give as much as a hint that Hamas will accept less.”

Israel has long maintained that a ceasefire would allow Hamas to regroup, rearm and attack it again, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that the war in Gaza will not end until Hamas’s governance and military capabilities are dismantled.

He has also dismissed a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the two-state model supported by the US, EU and Israel’s Arab neighbours.

Hamas, whose leaders in Gaza relay their negotiating positions through Egyptian mediators, also want any deal to end the war to include guarantees from Washington that Israel will not repeat its military operation in Gaza, and that the detainee and hostage swap will be followed through, even if in phases, the sources said.

The Paris meeting will take place as relations become increasingly frayed between Israel on one side and US allies Egypt and Qatar on the other.

The sources confirmed Israeli media reports that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has refused to take calls from Mr Netanyahu in the three months since the war began.

Cairo was deeply angered by Mr Netanyahu's suggestion that Israel must control the Gaza side of the enclave’s border with Egypt, they said.

Mr Netanyahu said Israeli control of the Gaza side of the border, known as the Philadelphia corridor, would be aimed to curb the smuggling of weapons into the territory.

Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has dismissed claims that its border with Gaza was being used to smuggle weapons, and rejected the idea of stationing Israeli troops in the corridor.

Mr El Sisi reaffirmed Cairo's position during a phone call with US President Joe Biden on Friday, the sources said.

Egypt has also rejected allegations that it is responsible for the slow flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and Mr El Sisi has responded by accusing Israel of holding up the aid deliveries to generate pressure for the release of hostages.

Israel says it places no limits on aid brought into Gaza as long as it passes security inspections, and Mr Netanyahu suggested Mr El Sisi's remarks were designed for domestic consumption.

“Relations with Egypt are managed in a continuing and proper manner, between the governments, all the time,” Mr Netanyahu said at a media briefing on Saturday. “Each of us, of course, has its interests. Egypt has the need to say certain things. I will not elaborate on this matter.”

He also said Qatar should apply the influence it has as a host and benefactor of Hamas to secure the release of the hostages.

“Qatar hosts the leaders of Hamas. It also funds Hamas. It has leverage over Hamas,” he said. “So, they should be so good as to apply their pressure. They positioned themselves as mediators – so please go right ahead, let them be so good as to bring back our hostages.”

Mr Netanyahu has previously described Qatar's involvement in mediating peace talks as “problematic”. Doha has called these comments “appalling”.

Updated: January 28, 2024, 3:01 PM