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The evacuation this week of wounded Palestinians and foreign citizens trapped in the Gaza Strip, alongside a sharp increase in aid entering the war-battered territory, follows days of secret, round-the-clock negotiations defined by hard bargains and fraught with distrust, Egyptian officials told The National.
The talks were mostly conducted in person between emissaries from the United States, Israel, Qatar and Egypt, most of them affiliated with intelligence agencies. Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls Gaza, participated indirectly, the officials said.
The negotiations showed results on Wednesday when the first batch of wounded Palestinians to leave Gaza arrived in Egypt for treatment, nearly a month after the war began. On the same day, at least 335 foreign passport holders also left Gaza through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, according to Wael Abu Omar, a spokesman for the Palestinian Crossings Authority. The crossings continued on Thursday.
Nearly 140 lorries laden with water, food and medical supplies entered Gaza via Rafah on Tuesday and Wednesday – by far the largest volume of aid delivered since the relief operation began on October 21, although still only a fraction of what the UN says is needed.
The Gaza war began when militants from Iran-backed Hamas raided southern Israel on October 7, killing about 1,400 people, including women and children, and taking at least 240 hostages back to Gaza.
Israel responded with a complete blockade of Gaza, denying its 2.3 million residents food, water, electricity and fuel, and unleashed a relentless bombing campaign that has skilled more than 9,000 Palestinians to date, displaced about half the population and laid waste to vast areas of built-up neighbourhoods.
Negotiations to end the fighting began soon after the war broke out, but Israel, angry and reeling from the bloodiest day in its history, was preoccupied with the launch of a military operation it says is designed to wipe out Hamas. It was in no mood to talk, the officials said.
Israel entered the negotiations under pressure from the United States, its closest western ally and main backer, as well as from families of the hostages.
The process was interrupted twice, once over a blast at a Gaza hospital on October 17 that was blamed on Israel, and again when an Israeli air strike destroyed an entire block in a Gaza refugee camp on Tuesday.
Negotiators from Hamas, Egypt and Qatar suspended contacts in protest over the high death toll in the two incidents.
Over the weekend a senior official from Israel's Mossad spy agency visited Qatar, urging officials and diplomats there to keep open channels of communication with leaders of Hamas and its patrons in Iran to facilitate the release of the hostages.
The Israeli official also wanted his hosts to try to find out the exact number of hostages held by Hamas and details of their identity, to help account for Israelis still listed as missing in the October 7 attacks.
The negotiators agreed to carve up the talks into stages with set objectives, the Egyptian officials said, with the first being the one now under way.
Egypt, which borders Gaza and Israel, initially refused to allow foreign citizens to cross into its territory through Rafah – now Gaza's sole gateway to the outside world – until it was allowed to send substantial relief aid to Gaza and receive the wounded.
Israel initially did not want aid to reach Gaza, arguing that this would undermine its blockade of the territory. But it relented in the face of growing US pressure and also with the hope of improving its chances of securing the release of at least some of the hostages, the officials said.
They said the second stage of talks could get under way during or immediately after the visit to Israel and Jordan by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who arrives in the region on Friday.
This will focus on sending fuel to Gaza and a humanitarian truce of up to five days to allow a larger evacuation of wounded Palestinians to Egypt and European hospital ships anchored off Gaza's Mediterranean coast.
However, this agreement could prove much more difficult to hammer out given the high expectations of both Israel and Hamas, as well as the volatility of the situation on the ground in Gaza, the officials said.
Israel has so far refused to allow fuel to be delivered to Gaza, fearing it could be used by Hamas for military purposes. The Israeli army said on Thursday that fuel would be sent to Gaza hospitals, but only after their supplies ran out and under strict monitoring.
Hamas wants a humanitarian pause and the release of nearly 300 Palestinian women and girls held in Israeli jails. It has given its preliminary agreement to release up to 50 elderly people and children among the hostages, as well as an unspecified number of foreign citizens including Americans, the officials said.
Israel is reluctant to agree to a truce before its troops are safely entrenched in strategic intersections in Gaza and have separated northern Gaza, where it believes Hamas's military capabilities are concentrated, from its southern part.
However, there signs that the second stage of negotiations might bear fruit after US President Joe Biden suggested a humanitarian "pause" on Wednesday, signalling a significant shift from his previous statements on Israel's military campaign against Hamas.
White House officials have said a pause in fighting would allow more aid to get into Gaza and create a possibility for more hostages to be freed, and Mr Blinken is expected to urge the relevant parties to agree to the proposa during his visit to the region.
Washington has pledged unwavering support for Israel's goal of ending Hamas's rule over Gaza and crushing its military capabilities. But neither of them appears to have a clear plan for what happens next.
A permanent ceasefire is the ultimate target of a later phase in the negotiations as well as a complete swap of prisoners, involving all remaining hostages kept by Hamas in return for the estimated 5,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, the officials said.
But right now that goal seems like a tall order.
Hamas, for example, is refusing an Israeli request relayed by negotiators to provide a list of the names of the hostages it is holding, according to the Egyptian officials.
Policy differences between Hamas's political leadership and commanders of its military wing are another impediment to negotiations.
An escalation of the Gaza war into a wider conflict involving other Iran-allied forces such as Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen could put the entire process on hold, the officials said.
Egypt also has its concerns. These include fears that if it allows a large number of wounded to be treated in its hospitals, Israel might not allow them back into Gaza when they are healthy and the fighting is over.
"Goodwill and trust are in very short supply in these negotiations," one of the officials said. "But there is no shortage of suspicion and brinkmanship."