Gaza truce negotiations end without deal but could resume over weekend

Hamas delegation leave Egypt for consultations with group's leadership as US continues to press for truce before Ramadan

Palestinians sift through the ruins of a residential building in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, after it was hit by an Israeli air strike. AP
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The latest round of Gaza truce negotiations ended on Thursday without a breakthrough, with the remaining members of the Hamas delegation leaving Egypt for consultations with the group’s leadership in Qatar.

Sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations told The National that talks were expected to resume in Egypt as early as this weekend.

Senior Hamas officials said the delegation left after Israel rejected the group’s conditions for accepting a six-week truce in which a prisoner and hostage swap and a surge in humanitarian aid to Gaza would take place.

Hamas has insisted it would only accept a temporary ceasefire if it receives guarantees that a permanent one would immediately follow. It would also not release active service Israeli soldiers until a permanent ceasefire was in place, freeing only elderly, ailing, women and child hostages during the six-week truce.

Hamas, whose October 7 attack on Israel triggered the war in Gaza, wants Israel to redeploy its forces outside urban centres as the first step of a full Israeli withdrawal.

The Hamas delegation's departure took place in two phases, said the sources. Khalil Al Hayah, the deputy and confidante of the Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, left Egypt on Tuesday night, they said. Delegates who stayed behind left on Thursday.

The sources said their departure should not be taken to mean the collapse of the negotiations, but was indicative of the complexity and delicacy of the process.

The administration of the US President Joe Biden has repeatedly said it wants a truce in place before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts on either Sunday or Monday, depending on the sighting of the crescent moon.

Mr Biden warned Hamas to agree to a Gaza truce by Ramadan. “It's in the hands of Hamas right now,” he said on Tuesday. “There's got to be a ceasefire because if we get into circumstances where this continues to Ramadan, Israel and Jerusalem could be very, very dangerous.”

The US President’s Ramadan deadline, however, is by now deep in uncertain territory.

“We have serious problems that need to be overcome,” said one of the sources. “Neither Israel nor Hamas are budging despite considerable US pressure on both."

They said Washington’s pressure on Hamas was applied indirectly through Qatar and Egypt.

Hamas is designated as a terrorist group by the US, the EU and Israel.

Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 left 1,200 dead. Some of the attackers returned to Gaza with about 240 hostages, of whom about 100 were released during a week-long truce in late November. Of those remaining in captivity, at least 30 are believed to be dead.

Israel’s response to the October attack was relentless bombardment of the densely populated Gaza Strip followed by a ground invasion. The assault has so far killed more than 30,000 Palestinians and displaced the vast majority of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents.

The bombardment has also created a humanitarian crisis, with Gazans now facing hunger and widespread disease.

Beside a phased withdrawal from Gaza that should be completed by the end of the six-week truce, Hamas wants guarantees that a permanent ceasefire would follow, a demand rooted in its fear that Israel would resume military operations in Gaza after the truce expires.

The group also wants thousands of Palestinian prisoners, including high-profile ones serving life or long jail terms, released from Israeli jails in exchange for the freedom of all the hostages it is still holding.

It also wants the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians to be able to return home, including those who fled the north and central regions of Gaza.

"Hamas's delegation left Cairo this morning for consultation with the leadership of the movement, with negotiations and efforts continuing to stop the aggression, return the displaced and bring in relief aid to our people," a Hamas statement said on Thursday.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel had been "thwarting" efforts to conclude a ceasefire deal mediated by Qatar and Egypt.

Israel was rejecting Hamas's demands to end its offensive in Gaza, he said.

"We are awaiting the final official response from the enemy [Israe]," a Hamas official who has been involved in the negotiations told AFP.

"The initial responses do not meet the minimum requirements related to the permanent cessation of hostilities" or other Hamas conditions for a ceasefire, the official said.

Still, the US remains convinced that a truce agreement is still possible.

"We continue to believe that obstacles are not insurmountable and a deal can be reached ... so we're going to continue to push for one," the State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Wednesday.

With additional reporting from Reuters and AFP

Updated: March 07, 2024, 4:28 PM