Hamas visit to Egypt could determine fate of latest deal to halt Gaza war

Militant group’s chief Ismail Haniyeh and senior officials expected to arrive for key talks between Thursday and Saturday

Hamas chief, Ismail Haniyeh, in Beirut in June 2021. AP
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A top-level visit by Hamas leaders to Egypt this week is likely to determine the outcome of the latest draft deal hammered out by mediators from the US, Egypt and Qatar to halt the fighting in Gaza, informed sources said on Wednesday.

The sources, who have direct knowledge of the planned visit, said Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh and senior officials Khalil Al Haya, Osama Hamdan and Moussa Abu Marzouq were due to arrive in Egypt between Thursday and Saturday.

They are set to discuss the latest proposals with Egyptian intelligence officials in charge of Palestinian-Israeli affairs, the sources added.

Israel has yet to give a formal response to the proposed deal.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that a “real effort” was being made to return hostages held in Gaza but that it was too early to say how such a move would play out.

“It's too early to say how it will take place but efforts are being made in these days, in these moments, these very hours,” he said in a meeting with families of the hostages, according to a statement released by his office.

The draft in question envisages a truce of up to three months during which Israel and Hamas would enact a detainee-hostage swap under which as many as 5,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails would be freed.

Hamas, according to the sources, has already informed Egyptian mediators of their rejection in principle of the draft, standing by its demand for a permanent ceasefire and guarantees that Israel will withdraw its forces from Gaza and agree to stop its military operations in the enclave.

Details of the draft were laid out in Paris, where the CIA chief, his Egyptian and Israeli counterparts – as well as Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and other Qatari officials – have been meeting since Sunday in the latest attempt to end the war in Gaza.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has voiced hope for a deal to halt the fighting in exchange for liberating the 132 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

“Very important, productive work has been done and there is some real hope going forward,” he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, however, has called the Paris talks “constructive” but highlighted “significant gaps, which the parties will continue to discuss”.

The Prime Minister, who has ruled out the release of thousands of Palestinians, is under pressure from Washington, Israel’s strongest backer, to chart a path towards ending the devastating war, and domestically from relatives of hostages who worry that negotiations are the only way to bring them home.

But far-right parties in Mr Netanyahu’s ruling coalition have said they will quit rather than endorse a deal to free hostages that could leave the Hamas network intact.

A source in the Gaza Strip who is close to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah said an Israeli rejection of the deal could add strain to the Prime Minister's relations with the US administration of President Joe Biden.

“It is worth noting that the extremists in Netanyahu's government deliberately mobilised Knesset members to make noises against the deal,” said the source. “But it is known that the general outlines of the deal were made under US pressure, which makes its rejection by Israel vulnerable to further straining relations with the Netanyahu government.”

Hamas, on the other hand, does not want a deal that would allow Israel to resume its devastating military offensive in Gaza once all hostages were released, and the group has insisted on a full withdrawal of Israeli forces.

Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly countered that the war will not end until Hamas is roundly defeated and its military and governing capabilities are dismantled.

Israel’s relentless onslaught in Gaza has killed about 27,000 Palestinians – according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry – displaced most of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents and razed much of the territory’s built-up areas.

The latest draft provides for a phased truce of up to three months in three stages during which Hamas will free – in batches – the hostages it has held since October 7, when its fighters launched a surprise attack on communities in southern Israel, killing about 1,200 and taking 240 captives back to Gaza.

The attack sparked the Gaza war.

A week-long truce negotiated by US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators in late November led to the release of more than 100 hostages held by Hamas in return for the freedom of hundreds of Palestinian detainees held in Israeli prisons. The truce collapsed on December 1.

The sources said Hamas remained adamant that the proposed 4,000-5,000 Palestinians set to be freed from Israeli prisons should include high-profile figures sentenced to life or serving long jail terms.

These include Marwan Al Barghouti from the mainstream Fatah movement and senior commander of Hamas’s military wing, Ibrahim Hamed.

One ratio being floated for the prisoner-hostage swap is for Israel to free 100 Palestinians for every civilian hostage and 250 for every active military service member.

Updated: February 01, 2024, 10:21 AM