Hamas abandons demand for permanent Gaza ceasefire, say sources

Group open to temporary pause in fighting as leaders discuss proposals in Cairo

A car that was destroyed in an Israeli attack on Rafah, southern Gaza. Cairo talks suggest Hamas is modifying its negotiating position. AFP
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Hamas has abandoned its demand for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, instead accepting a temporary pause in fighting to allow for a detainee and hostage swap with Israel and the entry of aid into Gaza, The National has learnt.

The group wants international guarantees that the truce will be followed by negotiations to reach a permanent ceasefire.

Previously, the Palestinian militant group insisted on a permanent ceasefire to accept a deal that includes the release of hostages and wanted guarantees that a truce would be followed by a permanent ceasefire.

The modified Hamas position also covers a hostage and detainee swap with Israel that is governed by progress made in the ceasefire negotiations, said the sources.

The group continues to insist on a full but staged Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the return, also phased, of Palestinians who left their homes in northern Gaza and sought refuge in the south.

There was no word from Hamas on its new position, but the militant group's leader Ismail Haniyeh and senior official Khalil Al Hayah arrived in Cairo on Tuesday to discuss its position with Egyptian, Qatari and, indirectly, US mediators.

Mr Al Hayah is the deputy of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas's leader in Gaza.

The latest Hamas proposals, said the sources, would give rise to hope that the fighting may soon be halted.

“This war needs to end, and Hamas knew that it needed to soften its conditions,” said one of the sources. “I believe we stand a very good chance of reaching a deal this time round.”

Hamas's modified negotiating position appears to be the outcome of a push by the mediators to arrive at new proposals to end the fighting in Gaza at a time when Israel is threatening to take its ground offensive to Gaza's southernmost city Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians have sought refuge.

US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk will travel to the region this week for talks that a senior official from President Joe Biden's administration said would focus on the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Mr McGurk, who participated in earlier talks, will visit Egypt on Wednesday and Israel on Thursday.

The new Hamas position, said the sources, is also in response to the provisions of a draft resolution being circulated by the US at the UN Security Council. This is an alternative to a document prepared by Algeria that calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

The US vetoed the resolution proposed by Algeria on Tuesday, after the 15-member Security Council voted 13-1 in favour of the resolution, with the UK abstaining.

US deputy ambassador to the UN Robert Wood said on Monday the passing of the Algerian resolution would endanger diplomatic negotiations which could result in the release of hostages from Gaza.

The US draft resolution, seen by The National, underscores Washington's “support for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza as soon as practical, based on the formula of all hostages being released” and calls for lifting all barriers to the provision of humanitarian assistance at scale.

It adds that a major ground offensive in Rafah would not only harm civilians but also displace them into neighbouring countries, and says that “a major ground offensive should not proceed under current circumstances”.

The document does not name Israel, but in a clear reference, it “condemns calls by government ministers for the resettlement of Gaza and rejects any attempt at demographic or territorial change in Gaza that would violate international law”.

It was not clear when the US plans to put its draft resolution to a vote in the Security Council.

Hamas had previously insisted on a permanent ceasefire, rejecting offers of a temporary humanitarian pause.

The sources said the group remains committed to its demand for a staged Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. A week-long truce in late November allowed Hamas to release about 100 of the hostages in exchange for more than 200 Palestinians detained in Israel.

Explaining the new Hamas position, the sources said the group wanted guarantees from the US, Egypt, Qatar, Russia, China and Turkey that negotiations on a permanent ceasefire commence when the pause goes into force.

For its part, said the sources, Hamas would make the staged release of hostages dependent on the progress of those negotiations, with the intention of keeping male military personnel in its custody until an agreement is reached on a permanent ceasefire and a complete Israeli withdrawal is carried out.

Hamas has already lowered from 5,000 to 3,000 the number of Palestinian prisoners it wants Israel to free from its jails in return for the hostages it is holding.

It now wants to negotiate during the temporary truce the inclusion in the hostage and detainee swap of high-profile Palestinians serving long jail sentences in security-linked cases, according to the sources.

The Hamas leaders, added the sources, arrived in Egypt in response to a US request relayed to them by Egyptian and Qatari mediators. The US, like the EU, designates Hamas as a terrorist organisation and does not deal directly with it.

Updated: February 21, 2024, 5:58 AM