Negotiations to pause Gaza war make progress in Cairo with new talks planned in Paris

CIA director William Burns, his Egyptian and Israeli counterparts and Qatar's prime minister to meet within days

Palestinians sift through rubble resulting from an Israeli strike on residential buildings and a mosque in Rafah on Thursday. AFP
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Negotiations to pause the Gaza war and enact a prisoner and hostage swap are making tangible progress, with the stakeholders now hoping a deal can be reached before the start of Ramadan, diplomatic sources told The National.

Speaking on Thursday, the sources said the negotiations, which are continuing in Cairo this week, would move to Paris within days.

CIA director William Burns, his Israeli and Egyptian counterparts as well as the Qatari prime minister will attend the negotiations in the French capital, they added, in what appears to be a major push to get a deal agreed before Ramadan, which begins on either March 10 or 11.

The latest drive to pause the fighting in Gaza comes as the war in the coastal enclave is in its fifth month. To date, relentless Israeli military bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 29,400 Palestinians, displaced about 85 per cent of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents and laid waste to large portions of built-up areas in the strip.

Fears are also growing that an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city on the Egyptian border, could cause significant civilian casualties since about 1.4 million Palestinians have taken refuge there.

The Gaza war was triggered by a Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 that killed about 1,200 people. The Hamas militants also took back to Gaza about 240 hostages, of whom about 100 were released during a week-long truce in late November. About 30 of the remaining hostages are thought to have died.

The sources did not go into details about the progress they said has been made in the talks so far, saying only that most of it is attributed to Hamas’s decision to soften its conditions for accepting a truce and allowing a prisoner and hostage swap with Israel.

“We are very hopeful that we can have a deal before Ramadan. Things are looking a great deal more positive than before,” one of the sources said. “Things are still moving slowly. The details are complicated ... but the overall picture is positive.”

The reported progress follows a decision by Hamas reported by the sources to drop its demand for a permanent ceasefire and instead accept a temporary one.

The group also wants international guarantees that the truce will be followed by negotiations to reach a permanent ceasefire.

Previously, Hamas insisted on international guarantees that a truce would be followed by a permanent ceasefire.

There are other tell-tale signs that a deal could be within reach.

Brett McGurk, the White House co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, was expected to arrive in Israel on Thursday – his second stop in the region after Egypt as part of US efforts to advance a hostage deal and broker a truce.

Hamas's chief, Ismail Haniyeh, is in Cairo for talks as well, the group said, while Israel’s war cabinet member Benny Gantz said on Wednesday there were efforts to “promote a new plan for the return of the hostages”.

“We are seeing the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress in this direction,” he said.

And in Washington, Matthew Miller, US State Department spokesman, said the US was hoping for an “agreement that secures a temporary ceasefire where we can get the hostages out and get humanitarian assistance [in]”, but declined to give details on continuing negotiations.

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Israeli Lt Col Peter Lerner told The National that before any deadline, the Israeli army will implement "any instructions we receive from the government and political echelon", adding that “our goal is to pursue Hamas wherever they are and achieve the military aims of this war".

“And it is within the framework of what the government is instructing us to do. They could change, but I don't think so at this stage.”

For months, the US, Egypt and Qatar have been working on a deal between Israel and Hamas that would pause the war in Gaza and lead to the release of hostages who have been held since October 7.

The Joe Biden administration has continued to back Israel in its declared goal of destroying Hamas. But the pressure is mounting to help end the war.

In recent weeks, Washington has said it will not support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to launch a major military operation in Rafah. The White House said that the assault would spell disaster for Palestinian civilians there, most of whom are living in makeshift tents and have little access to basic necessities.

The US has instead called on Israel to come up with a credible evacuation plan that would protect civilians from harm. Israel has not presented any safety plans so far, and Mr McGurk would discuss the issue with Israelis during his visit, the White House said.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 7:08 AM