US and regional allies Egypt and Qatar renew bid to halt Gaza fighting and free hostages

Israeli representatives and Qatari PM to join meeting in Cairo aimed at narrowing differences between Hamas and Israel over terms for halting the fighting

A Palestinian child walks among rubble after an Israeli air strike on a refugee camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Monday. EPA
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CIA director William Burns will arrive in Cairo on Tuesday to lead a renewed bid by the United States and its regional allies Egypt and Qatar to draft a blueprint acceptable to Israel and Hamas to halt their war in Gaza and enact a prisoner and hostage swap.

Their latest attempt comes amid growing fears of heavy civilian casualties if Israel goes ahead with plans to take its ground operations into the southern Gaza city of Rafah where more than half the 2.3 million population of the coastal enclave have sought refuge from the fighting.

Fuelling these fears, Israeli air strikes targeting Rafah early on Monday killed at least 93 people and wounded dozens more as the army launched a special forces operation to free two Israeli hostages in the city.

The new round of talks is also taking place amid a flurry of diplomatic activity.

King Abdullah of Jordan visited Washington for talks with US President Joe Biden at the White House on Monday, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas travelled to Qatar for talks with the Gulf state's rulers and political leaders of Hamas. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected in Cairo on Wednesday. Talks with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah El Sisi are likely to focus on regional tensions arising from the Gaza war.

Notably, the renewed negotiations, which also involve the chiefs of Israel's Mossad spy agency and domestic security agency Shin Bet, coincide with growing tension between Egypt and Israel which have led to Cairo threatening to void their 1979 peace treaty if a major ground assault on Rafah is launched.

The treaty limits the number of troops on both sides of their border in the Sinai Peninsula, although the two nations have in the past agreed to modify those arrangements in response to specific security threats. This has allowed Israel to focus its military on other threats.

If Egypt were to nullify the agreement, it could mean Israel can no longer rely on its southern border to be quiet and would have to bolster its forces' presence there, further stretching its resources.

In anticipation of a Rafah offensive, Egypt has already reinforced its military presence on the border with Gaza and Israel, placing forces on high alert, and stepped up ground patrols and reconnaissance flights over the area, informed sources in Cairo said.

It has matched these moves with hardline rhetoric, saying a ground operation in Rafah would have "dire" consequences.

Egypt, like the US and other nations, fears 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 in the Sinai Peninsula.

Cairo says Israel would not allow Palestinians who seek refuge in Egypt to return home, placing another hurdle before any future talks to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The influx of Palestinians into the sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula would also jeopardise Egypt's national security, Cairo fears.

Mr El Sisi has publicly warned Israeli actions were jeopardising decades-long endeavours to maintain peace between the two nations through difficult circumstances.

However, suspending the 1979 treaty would have serious ramifications for Egypt, which has received billions of dollars in US military and economic assistance as a reward for signing it and adhering to its provisions.

Moreover, the treaty has been a cornerstone of the region's geopolitical landscape. Its suspension or annulment would fuel already high regional tensions and increase the potential for all-out war in the Middle East.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed Israel's intention to invade Rafah in an interview on Sunday. He said his government was working on a plan to evacuate the city beforehand, although it is not clear where more than one million displaced Palestinians could go in Gaza and be safe.

Tuesday's negotiations in Cairo follow Mr Netanyahu's outright dismissal last week of proposals tabled by Hamas in response to a ceasefire plan hammered out by mediators late last month in Paris. That envisaged a truce of up to three months during Israel and Hamas would swap detainees and hostages.

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

Hamas's counterproposals included a comprehensive ceasefire, full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the release of up to 5,000 Palestinians jailed in Israel in return for the estimated 130 hostages it has in its custody, including the bodies of those who are dead. Mr Netanyahu called the plan "delusional".

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

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

Under a week-long truce in late November, more than 100 hostages held by Hamas and about 200 Palestinians from Israeli prisons were released. Of the 132 believed to be held by Hamas, nearly 30 are presumed dead.

The chances of a successful conclusion to this week's talks are 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 negotiations.

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

Updated: February 13, 2024, 3:00 AM