US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators to resume Gaza talks as Rafah attack looms

Meetings to start Tuesday in Cairo with CIA director William Burns in attendance

CIA director William Burns will lead the US in talks in which the intelligence chiefs of Israel and Egypt will participate. Reuters
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Mediators from the US, Egypt and Qatar are scheduled to resume talks on Tuesday in Cairo to try to find a formula to end the fighting in Gaza that is acceptable to Israel and Hamas, The National has learnt.

CIA director William Burns will lead the US team in the talks in which the intelligence chiefs of Israel and Egypt is to participate. Senior Qatari security officials would also take part, said sources, who spoke to The National on condition of anonymity.

Fresh negotiations follow the outright dismissal last week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of proposals tabled by Hamas in response to a plan hammered out by mediators late last month. The nixed plan envisaged a truce of up to three months and a prisoner and hostage swap between Israel and Hamas.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was in the region last week on his fifth Middle East tour since the war broke out, said Hamas's proposals had some merit but included “non-starters”.

This week's talks also take place against a backdrop of rising tension between Egypt and Israel over the latter's declared intention to take its military operations into the southern Gaza city of Rafah on the Egyptian border.

The town and its environs are packed with more than a million Gazans seeking shelter from the war.

Egypt, like the US and others, fears that an Israeli incursion into Rafah will result in massive civilian casualties and leave hundreds of thousands of Palestinians with no place to go, except across the border and to the Sinai Peninsula.

Those who come to Egypt, Cairo says, would not be allowed to return home by Israel, placing another hurdle in any future negotiations to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The influx of Palestinians into the sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula, which borders Gaza and Israel, would also jeopardise Egypt's national security, according to Cairo.

“Military operations in the Rafah area in southern Gaza will bring about more civilian casualties and a disastrous humanitarian situation,” Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Saturday.

Mr Netanyahu on Sunday confirmed in a media interview Israel's intention to move into Rafah – 'We're going to do it”, he told ABC television – but promised to find a “safe passage” for the Palestinians in Rafah.

Egypt, according to the sources, already has warned Mr Netanyahu's government that it would suspend relations if it goes ahead with its Rafah incursion. It has meanwhile reinforced its forces in Sinai and placed them on high alert. It has also stepped up reconnaissance flights over the border region.

The two countries are bound by a 1979 peace treaty, the first between an Arab nation and Israel, but their relations, for decades mostly cool, have become tense since the Gaza war began.

Egypt was angered by repeated bombardment of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing by Israel as well as its claims that Cairo was responsible for delays in dispatching humanitarian aid into Gaza.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has publicly warned that Israeli actions were putting at risk Cairo's decades-long endeavours to maintain peace between the two nations through difficult circumstances.

The Gaza war was triggered by a surprise October 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel that left nearly 1,200 killed. Hamas fighters also took 240 hostages back to Gaza.

Israel's response was a devastating military campaign in Gaza that has to date killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, displaced about 85 per cent of the enclave's 2.3 million people and razed large swathes of built-up areas.

A week-long truce in late November saw the release of more than 100 hostages held by Hamas and the release of about 200 Palestinians from Israeli prisons. Of the 132 now held by Hamas, nearly 30 are presumed dead.

The sources said the chances of a successful conclusion to this week's talks were uncertain.

Hamas told Egyptian mediators in marathon talks on Thursday that it would not budge on its demands for a permanent ceasefire and a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, to be accompanied by international guarantees, said the sources, who were briefed on the outcome of the talks.

Hamas also remains adamant that the reconstruction of Gaza should have a three-year timeline, also with international guarantees, said the sources. It also wants the siege of Gaza lifted and Israel to resume the supply of water and power to Gaza.

However, they said, Hamas has agreed to reduce the number of Palestinians it wants freed from Israeli prisons to 3,000 from up to 5,000. Hamas has also shown flexibility on the high-profile Palestinian prisoners it wants to see freed as part of the hostage and prisoner swap.

Mr Netanyahu, who described Hamas's proposals as “delusional” says Israel will continue the war in Gaza until Hamas is eradicated. He has also rejected the creation of a Palestinian state as part of an overall settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Updated: February 11, 2024, 10:35 AM