US and allies Egypt and Qatar agree on draft to end Gaza war, say sources

Latest talks held against backdrop of Egyptian-Israeli tensions amid growing fears over planned offensive on Rafah

Displaced Palestinians who fled Israeli strikes shelter in a tent camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Reuters
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Mediators from the US, Egypt and Qatar agreed on Tuesday to new proposals to end the war in Gaza, sources briefed on the talks told The National.

The proposals include a six-week pause in the fighting during which a prisoner and hostage swap between Israel and Hamas would be undertaken.

The sources said the pause would be offered “on the understanding” that a comprehensive ceasefire would follow. The proposals also include a phased Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the formation of an interim Palestinian government made up of technocrats to run the territory while reconstruction of the enclave is carried out, the sources said.

Hamas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have been informed of the latest proposals and the mediators are awaiting their formal response, said the sources.

The proposals were reached during talks in Cairo on Tuesday that brought together CIA director William Burns, his Egyptian and Israeli counterparts and Qatar's Prime Minister and intelligence chief.

The quartet of nations met late last month in Paris when they hammered out a plan to end the fighting in Gaza. Hamas, however, made counterproposals that Israel rejected outright, sending the talks back to the drawing board.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi met separately on Tuesday with Mr Burns and the Qatari Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman. The president's office said the meetings reviewed the situation in Gaza, efforts to halt the fighting and ensuring the supply of humanitarian aid to the territory.

The latest round of talks in Cairo comes amid growing fears of heavy civilian casualties if Israel goes ahead with plans to take its ground operations into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than half of the enclave's 2.3 million people have sought refuge from the fighting.

Earlier on Tuesday, an AP report quoted an unnamed Egyptian official saying mediators had achieved “relatively significant” progress in indirect contacts between Israel and Hamas before the Cairo meeting.

The official said the meeting would focus on “crafting a final draft” of a six-week ceasefire deal, with guarantees that the parties would continue negotiations towards a permanent ceasefire.

Speaking at the White House on Monday, US President Joe Biden also spoke about a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas which would bring an immediate and sustained period of calm into Gaza for at least six weeks.

Saying he was working on the issue “day and night”, Mr Biden said a six-week break in hostilities would provide a foundation “to build something more enduring”.

Notably, the renewed negotiations coincide with growing tension between Egypt and Israel which have led to Cairo threatening to void their 1979 peace treaty if a major ground assault on Rafah is launched.

The treaty limits the number of troops on both sides of their border in the Sinai Peninsula, although the two nations have in the past agreed to modify those arrangements in response to specific security threats. This has allowed Israel to focus its military on other threats.

In anticipation of a Rafah offensive, Egypt has reinforced its military presence on the border with Gaza and Israel, placing forces on high alert, and stepped up ground patrols and reconnaissance flights over the area, informed sources in Cairo said.

It has matched these moves with hard-line rhetoric, saying a ground operation in Rafah would have “dire” consequences.

Like the US and other nations, Egypt fears an Israeli incursion into Rafah will result in massive civilian casualties and leave hundreds of thousands of Palestinians with no place to go except across the border in the Sinai Peninsula.

Cairo says Israel would not allow Palestinians who seek refuge in Egypt to return home, placing another hurdle before any future talks to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The potential influx of Palestinians into Egypt's sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula would also jeopardise Egypt's national security, Cairo fears.

However, suspending the 1979 treaty would have serious ramifications for Egypt, which has received billions of dollars in US military and economic assistance as a reward for signing it and adhering to its provisions.

Fuelling the tension, Egypt and Israel were involved in yet another public spat on Monday over a claim by Israeli far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich that Cairo bore “considerable responsibility” for Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel that triggered the Gaza war.

Mr Netanyahu appears unperturbed by the growing calls for him not to take ground operations to Rafah.

He has over the weekend confirmed Israel's intention to invade the city. He said his government was working on a plan to evacuate it beforehand, although it is not clear where more than one million displaced Palestinians could go in Gaza and be safe.

Mr Netanyahu has also rejected proposals offered by Hamas last week that included a four-and-a-half-month ceasefire during which all hostages would be freed, Israel would withdraw its troops from Gaza and an agreement would be reached on an end to the war.

They also included the release of up to 5,000 Palestinians jailed by Israel in return for the estimated 130 hostages it has in its custody, including the bodies of those who are dead.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said on Monday that the group “has shown great flexibility in the talks to end the aggression and swap the captives, but the occupation is still stalling and disrespecting the efforts that are being done”.

The Israeli military campaign in Gaza – launched after Hamas killed about 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages in southern Israel on October 7 – has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, displaced about 85 per cent of the enclave's population and destroyed much of its built-up areas.

During a week-long truce in late November, more than 100 hostages held by Hamas and about 200 Palestinians from Israeli prisons were released. Of the 240 believed to be held by Hamas, nearly 30 are presumed dead.

Updated: February 13, 2024, 5:03 PM