Gaza talks mediators agree on new proposals for prisoner and hostage swap

Hamas said to have shown flexibility on number of Palestinian prisoners it wants Israel to fee

Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip. AFP
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Mediators from the US, Qatar and Egypt have agreed on a new set of proposals to halt fighting in Gaza and enact a prisoner and hostage swap between Hamas and Israel, sources briefed on the deliberations told The National on Wednesday.

They said the blueprint envisages a six-week pause in the fighting being offered to the warring sides “on the understanding” that negotiating a comprehensive ceasefire would be held after the guns fall silent.

Also during the pause, they explained, Hamas would release in batches the 132 hostages and remains of those who died in its custody in exchange for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

The proposals also provide for a phased Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the creation of a nonpartisan government of technocrats to run the coastal enclave while reconstruction is under way there, the sources said.

The proposals were hammered out during meetings in Cairo on Tuesday that brought together CIA Director William Burns and his Egyptian and Israeli counterparts, along with Qatar’s prime minister and its security chief.

Deliberations by representatives of the four countries – focused on details and accommodating possible reservations by either Hamas or Israel – would continue for the remainder of the week, the sources said.

Should the proposals be embraced by Israel and Hamas, they added, a UN Security Council resolution would be sought to support them.

They said Hamas has shown flexibility on the number of Palestinian prisoners it wants freed from Israeli prisons. The group was no longer insisting on 5,000 as it did last month and was also open to some compromise on the high-profile Palestinians serving long jail terms it wants freed as part of the swap, they said.

Israel is opposed to what it sees as the large number of prisoners Hamas wants freed from its jails. Hamas is known to be counting on the active Israeli soldiers it is holding hostage for leverage when bargaining over the Palestinian prisoners it wants to see freed by Israel.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, said Hamas presented no new offer for a Gaza hostage deal during the Cairo talks and that Israel would not agree to its current demands.

"Israel did not receive any new proposal from Hamas to release our hostages," it said. "Israel will not capitulate to Hamas's ludicrous demands. A change in Hamas's positions will make it possible to move forward in the negotiations."

There was no immediate word from Hamas on the latest proposals.

Mr Netanyahu has said Israel would press on with its military campaign in Gaza until Hamas is eradicated and the hostages are freed. He also dismissed as “delusional” proposals made by Hamas last week to end the war.

Hamas, for its part, according to the sources, has expressed concerns that Israel would resume bombarding Gaza after the last hostage is released.

Hamas, the sources said, wanted ironclad guarantees from the US and other powers that this would not happen. A Hamas delegation was due in Egypt later this week to discuss the latest proposals, according to media reports on Wednesday.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called the negotiations "constructive and moving in the right direction" in comments at the White House, but added: "Nothing is done until it is all done.”

The Gaza war was triggered by a surprise Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7, when its fighters killed about 1,200 people and seized 240.

The attack – Israel's bloodiest day since its creation in 1948 – triggered a devastating Israeli response that has so far killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, displaced the vast majority of the territory’s 2.3 million residents and destroyed large parts of built-up areas.

The war has also created a huge humanitarian crisis, with many in Gaza now facing hunger and the spread of diseases.

The latest round of talks is taking place 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 population of the strip have sought refuge from the fighting.

The negotiations coincide with growing tension between Egypt and Israel, with 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 shared border in the Sinai Peninsula, although the two countries 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, for example on the Lebanon-Israel border.

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

It has matched these moves with hard-line rhetoric, saying a ground operation in Rafah would have dire consequences.

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

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

Egypt also fears that the influx of Palestinians into the sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula would jeopardise the country's national security.

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.

Updated: February 14, 2024, 4:54 PM