Gaza truce negotiations 'on ice' as Israel and Hamas remain at odds

UN chief Guterres criticised Israel over aid blockade to Gaza

Parachutes drop supplies into the northern Gaza Strip as seen from southern Israel on Sunday, March 24, 2024. AP
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The chief negotiators in the Gaza truce talks have left Qatar without making any tangible progress towards a deal to pause the fighting.

Sources told The National on Sunday that CIA director William Burns, his Egyptian counterpart Abbas Kamel and Israeli Mossad intelligence chief David Barnea left Doha on Sunday evening.

While in Qatar, the three were joined in the negotiations by Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman, Doha-based Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh and senior official Khalil Aby Haya.

“The negotiations have been complex, difficult and now more or less on ice,” said one source. “Neither Israel nor Hamas are showing enough flexibility for a deal to be clinched.”

Technical teams and lower-ranking operatives from the Israel, US and Egyptian delegations remain in Doha.

Among the main hurdles preventing a deal, the sources said, is Israel’s strong reservations about the numbers and identities of Palestinian detainees Hamas wants freed from Israeli jails in return for the estimated 100 hostages it has in its custody.

Israel is also objecting to Hamas’s key demand that an initial six-week ceasefire be followed by a permanent cessation of hostilities and a complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The sources said Israel was also demanding that senior Hamas leaders in Gaza, including Yahya Sinwar, leave Gaza as part of a deal. Hamas has rejected that demand.

Israel has also balked at Hamas’s demand that those displaced by the war – the vast majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents – be unconditionally allowed to return to their homes during the first and second phases of the proposed deal.

Of the displaced, an estimated 1.5 million have found refuge in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza on the Egyptian border.

Israel has been threatening to invade the city, claiming that it was essential for the realisation of its main war goal of dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities.

Besides the large-scale displacement, the war in Gaza has to date killed more than 32,000 Palestinians and injured twice that number. It has created a humanitarian crisis, with many in the tiny but densely packed enclave facing hunger and disease, with pockets of famine emerging in the north.

The war was triggered by an attack on southern Israel by Hamas on October 7 that killed about 1,200 people. The militants also took about 240 hostages.

An Israeli official, quoted by Reuters, said the US has made a “bridging proposal” for the number of Palestinian detainees to be released by Israel in exchange for every hostage freed by Hamas in any new Gaza truce.

“During the negotiations (in Doha), significant gaps came to light on the question of the ratio” of detainees to be released for each of the 40 hostages whose potential recovery is under discussion, said the Israeli official.

“The United States put a bridging proposal on the table, to which Israel responded positively. Hamas' response is pending,” added the official, who gave no details.

Hamas has proposed to free about 40 to 45 female, minor, elderly and ailing hostages in return for up to 1,000 Palestinians.

It has also suggested that for each female Israeli soldier it has in its custody – there are believed to be about five – Israel must free 50 Palestinians, 30 of whom should be high-profile figures serving life or long jail terms.

Israel said that proposal was unrealistic.

Under a week-long truce in late November, Israel released 300 detained Palestinians for about 100 hostages held by Hamas. Besides the 100 hostages Hamas still holds, at least 30 are thought to have died in detention.

In Cairo on Sunday, UN Secretary General António Guterres resumed his scathing criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza and the obstacles it has placed to the delivery of sufficient aid to the people of the coastal territory.

Sending in large quantities of aid requires Israel to remove the remaining obstacles and choke points to relief, said Mr Guterres, who said he has detected a slight improvement in the flow of aid into Gaza.

“It requires more crossings and access points,” he told a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. “The only efficient and effective way to move heavy goods is by road.”

Mr Guterres is visiting Egypt and Jordan. He met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi on Sunday and travelled on Saturday to Egypt's border with Gaza, where he said the backlog of aid destined for Gaza was a moral outrage.

Donations of aid have piled up in Egypt's northern Sinai territory close to the Gaza border, with only limited amounts sent in through Egypt's Rafah crossing and the Israeli crossing of Kerem Shalom.

The delay in delivering aid to Gaza has prompted several countries, including the US, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE to use air drops and ships to deliver aid. The amounts delivered so far are widely thought to be negligible.

Mr Guterres said the UN was working hard to sustain funding for its agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which he called the backbone for humanitarian aid inside Gaza.

Several countries, including the US and Britain, paused their funding to UNRWA after accusations by Israel that a dozen of the agency's 13,000 staff in Gaza took part in the October 7 attack on Israel.

“We are continuing to investigate to identify any breaches … We are reviewing the situation to improve the capability of UNRWA and ensure full respect of UN ethics,” he said.

“It plays a vital role and its Gaza staff must be appreciated. Many of them have been killed and that should earn the respect of everyone.”


Additional reporting by Reuters

Updated: March 24, 2024, 4:09 PM