Israel seeks new hostage deal but Hamas insists on permanent ceasefire

Gaza negotiations lay bare huge gap between warring parties more than two months into the fighting

Smoke rises from buildings bombed by Israel in Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip, on Tuesday. AFP
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Hamas is open to another hostage and prisoner swap deal with Israel if the latter agrees to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, as well as a host of other demands, according to Egyptian officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

Israel, which has vowed to annihilate Hamas and has been relentlessly bombarding Gaza since October 7, says a temporary truce such as the one that ended on December 1 will suffice, said the officials.

Underlining the intransigence of both parties, Hamas and Israel are telling mediators from Egypt, the United States and Qatar that they have the stomach and means to carry on fighting for months, said the officials.

The officials spoke to The National only hours before the UN General Assembly was due to vote, and most likely adopt, a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The non-binding resolution comes after the US, Israel's chief backer, vetoed a similar resolution at the Security Council on Friday, angering Arab nations, including traditional American allies Egypt and Jordan.

The officials said Hamas, which is indirectly involved in the negotiations taking place in Egypt, Qatar and Ramallah, wants a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli ground troops from Gaza in return for the staggered release of up to 50 of the estimated 137 hostages it still holds.

It says the 50 would be made up of women, children, the elderly and those with medical needs. In return, it wants a total of 300 Palestinians held in Israeli jails freed. The proposal, Hamas says, should be part of a larger deal under which all Palestinians held in Israel and the remainder of the hostages in Gaza are released.

Hamas took about 240 people hostage when its fighters rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people. Their surprise attack drew a harsh response from Israel, which has since been pounding Gaza from the air, sea and land, killing more than 18,000 Palestinians – mostly women and children – and obliterating much of northern Gaza.

More than 80 per cent of the coastal enclave's 2.3 million residents are now displaced amid a catastrophic humanitarian crisis perpetuated by a collapsing health care system, hunger and the spread of disease.

Under a week-long truce that ended on December 1, Hamas released 78 hostages and 180 Palestinians were freed by Israel.

More than 5,000 Palestinians remain detained in Israeli prisons.

Hostilities have resumed since, with Israel taking its ground offensive to southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands are crowding into small areas previously considered safe.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has refused to commit to a firm timetable for his country's military operations in Gaza, but signalled the current phase of heavy ground fighting and air strikes could stretch on for weeks and that further military activities could last for months.

The next phase, he explained, would be lower-intensity fighting against “pockets of resistance”.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will maintain security control over Gaza indefinitely.

Other Hamas conditions for the release of hostages, according to the officials, include the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, a halt to efforts to kill or capture leaders of the militant group as well as raids against suspected militants in the occupied West Bank.

Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, also wants an end to what it says are transgressions by Jewish settlers in Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque complex, Islam's third holiest site.

Hamas, said the officials, has rejected repeated requests made by Israel that delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross visit the hostages. Hamas believes such a visit would be used by Israel to glean useful information on the whereabouts of the hostages, they said.

The officials said it was difficult to accurately gauge progress in the negotiations but insisted reaching a deal on a second temporary truce could not be ruled out.

“Israel already has realised some of the biggest goals of the war and that's rendering large parts of Gaza unsuitable for human habitation and fatiguing Hamas's military and human capabilities,” said one of the officials.

On the separate negotiating track on the future of Gaza after the end of hostilities, or what has come to be known as “day after” scenarios, proposals include Palestinians holding legislative and presidential elections, the exploitation of the large reserves of natural gas off Gaza's Mediterranean coast and reconstruction of the sector, with Egypt, Qatar and Turkey undertaking the task, said the officials.

They said Iran, the chief backer of Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthis were kept abreast of the progress of the talks by Egypt and Qatar. The two Arab nations are calling on Tehran to do what it can to prevent the spread of the Gaza war into a fully fledged regional conflict.

Of particular concern, said the officials, are the Houthis' attacks on ships in the Red Sea, which could disrupt global trade and unleash a surge in oil and food prices worldwide.

The more controversial plans floated concerned who governs the enclave and how to keep the peace.

For example, the negotiators, according to the officials, see the annihilation of Hamas – an Israeli goal supported by the US – as a tall order, near impossible to achieve.

Another scenario deemed unrealistic was establishing a demilitarised Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas, which vows to destroy Israel, rejects this proposal.

Israel, said the officials, is demanding a three-year transition period before it can consider relinquishing its sole responsibility for security in Gaza. The US opposes a security role for Israel in Gaza but is on board with its declared aim of dismantling Hamas's military and governing abilities.

Israel is also demanding the creation of buffer zones in Gaza that deny militants direct access to the borders with Israel. Egypt, which borders both Israel and Gaza, rejects that.

“Destroying Hamas, even its military capability – Israeli leaders' chief war aim – will be a tall order without decimating what remains of Gaza,” the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based international think tank, said in a report released at the weekend.

Updated: December 13, 2023, 4:28 AM