Lower-level Gaza talks resume with focus on detainee and hostage swap

Hamas demands release of all Palestinians in Israeli jails in exchange for hostages

This picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip shows the level of destruction as fighting continues. AFP
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Gaza truce negotiations held behind closed doors have resumed, with the focus on another round of prisoner and hostage exchanges between Israel and Hamas, Egyptian officials have said.

They said negotiations involving mid-level officials and diplomats from Qatar, Israel, Egypt, the US and, indirectly, Hamas are taking place in Doha, Tel Aviv and Cairo, describing them as “intermittent” and lacking the urgency that produced a temporary, week-long truce earlier this month.

Previously, the talks involved the heads of the CIA, Mossad, Egyptian intelligence and Qatar's Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. Hamas's political leaders based in Qatar had also been involved.

The Egyptian officials, who regularly receive in-depth briefings on the process, spoke to The National as Israel began a ground offensive in the south of the Gaza Strip, which is crowded with about one million displaced people. The ferocious resumption of Israel's offensive is likely to complicate the negotiations.

They spoke only days after a week-long truce collapsed, with Israel and Hamas blaming each other for the failure to renew it. The temporary truce had allowed for significant humanitarian aid to reach Gaza and the release of scores of women and children from among hostages held by Hamas, as well as Palestinians detained in Israeli jails.

The Gaza war began on October 7 when Hamas went on a deadly rampage in southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages back to the coastal enclave.

Vowing to annihilate Hamas, Israel responded with relentless bombardment that has so far killed almost 16,000 including 5,000 children, displaced the majority of Gaza's 2.3 million residents and wiped out many built-up areas.

“The negotiations are continuing but in an off-and-on pattern and shifting from Qatar to Israel and Egypt,” said one of the officials. “The Israelis' main motive in continuing the negotiations is to keep alive the conversation on the release of hostages still held by Hamas, especially military personnel, and ensure that no harm comes to them while in captivity.”

Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said Israel was prepared to consider additional hostage release offers from Hamas. “We will consider any serious proposal in order to get them out,” he said.

After the exchanges during the week-long truce, 137 Israeli hostages remain in Gaza with 117 male, including two children, and the rest female, Mr Levy said.

Hamas, said the officials, is believed to be holding at least 50 active Israeli military personnel and is insisting it will exchange them only if Israel is willing to release every Palestinian it has in its prisons. There are around 7,000 Palestinians held in Israeli custody.

The group has rejected repeated Israeli requests to allow representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the hostages.

Among the Palestinian prisoners Hamas wants Israel to free are Marwan Barghouti, a popular leader of the mainstream Fatah faction sentenced to life in prison in 2004, and Ibrahim Hamed, the West Bank commander of Hamas's military wing who has been held since 2006 and is serving 54 life sentences.

This is likely to prove to be a tall order. But Hamas is convinced that the relatively large number of Israeli soldiers it is holding hostage is giving it its strongest bargaining position since it seized power in Gaza in 2007, said the officials.

The current war is the fifth between Hamas and Israel since 2008.

The officials said Israeli negotiators were asking their Egyptian and Qatari counterparts to persuade the Iranian-backed Hamas to start negotiating a prisoner and hostage swap immediately, and not to expect a cessation of hostilities as part of any deal.

“Hamas is fighting what it views as an existential battle. It will not surrender and it can inspire the spread of the conflict to other parts of the region,” said another official. “Violence in the West Bank could escalate into a full-fledged insurgency, while Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthis can also step up attacks.

“The Israeli government and army appear determined to destroy Gaza entirely.”

Low-level hostilities between Iranian-backed groups and Israel – on fronts beyond Gaza – and its main ally the US, are showing signs of escalation.

Attacks blamed on Yemen's Houthis on shipping in the southern reaches of the Red Sea are heightening fears of the conflict spreading and affecting international trade.

The US Defence Department said three commercial ships were attacked on Sunday by the Houthis in international Red Sea waters, and a US destroyer operating in the area shot down three drones.

A Houthi spokesman said its navy had attacked two Israeli ships in the Red Sea with an armed drone and a missile on Sunday, though an Israeli military spokesman said neither ship had any connection to Israel.

Fighting near the Lebanon-Israel border has also intensified since the collapse of the truce between Hamas and Israel. On Sunday, at least three Israeli soldiers were injured by mortar shelling from Lebanon into military posts near the northern Israeli town of Shtula.

Iraqi armed groups loyal to Iran have meanwhile claimed responsibility for more than 70 attacks against US forces since October 17. The latest US response to these came on Sunday, when an air strike killed five Iraqi militants near the northern city of Kirkuk as they prepared to launch explosive projectiles at American forces in Iraq.

Updated: December 05, 2023, 12:04 PM