Hamas, Israel and US indirect negotiations in Cairo at 'critical phase'

The flurry of diplomatic activity is part of a renewed drive to head off an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah

An Israeli tank moves along the border with Gaza against a backdrop of destroyed and damaged buildings. Getty Images
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Indirect negotiations in Cairo between Hamas, Israel and the US to pause the war in Gaza have reached a “critical phase”, diplomatic sources told The National, amid a renewed diplomatic push to reach a deal in the coming days.

The diplomatic activity is part of a renewed drive to have a second truce in place to head off an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, they said. The southern Gazan city on the Egyptian border is home to about 1.4 million displaced Palestinians.

The US, like Egypt and other stakeholders, fear that ground operations in Rafah could significantly worsen the humanitarian situation in the besieged enclave and cause many civilian casualties.

On Wednesday, US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk was taking part in negotiations in Cairo. His Middle East trip, which includes a visit to Israel on Thursday, is focused on pushing for a humanitarian pause “before the end of the week”, the State Department said.

It also comes on the backdrop of a US push for a UN Security Council resolution that calls for a temporary ceasefire “as soon as practicable”, after vetoing another resolution drafted by Algeria that called for an immediate ceasefire.

America vetoes UN Security Council resolution on Israel-Gaza war

America vetoes UN Security Council resolution on Israel-Gaza war

Meanwhile, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and senior official Khalil Al Haya held talks with Egypt's spy chief Abbas Kamel, whose General Intelligence Directory has for years been in charge of relations with Israel and Palestinian factions.

Ahmed Abd Al Hadi, Hamas's representative in Lebanon, told The National that the delegation went to Cairo “for further dialogue and discussion with the Egyptian mediator with the aim of achieving progress in the negotiations”.

A four-man delegation from Israel's Mossad spy agency was also expected to arrive in Egypt for talks with Egyptian officials.

“The indirect negotiations in Egypt are ongoing and have reached a critical phase,” a Palestinian source told The National.

But “the Israeli side is trying to evade its obligation to a truce by threatening to invade Rafah and pressuring the Palestinians through raids and starvation,” added the source.

For months, the US, Egypt and Qatar have been working on a deal between Israel and Hamas that would pause the war in Gaza and lead to the release of hostages who have been held since October 7.

The renewed diplomatic efforts come after Hamas abandoned its demand for a permanent ceasefire, instead accepting a temporary pause in fighting, sources said.

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

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

An Israeli government official declined to comment on these specific reports but told The National that “Israel is fully committed to the release of all hostages. Israel will never stop until all hostages are released”.

But Hamas's Mr Abd Al Hadi accused the Israeli government of attempting to prolong the war for political reasons.

“There is no intention by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his government to conclude a deal and end the aggression because he believes that this will make his government collapse and he will go to prison,” Mr Abd Al Hadi told The National.

“Therefore, he is concerned with prolonging the war, and is currently threatening to invade Rafah,” he added.

The Joe Biden administration has continued to back Israel in its stated goal of destroying Hamas. But the pressure is mounting to help end a war that has claimed the lives of more than 29,300 Palestinians, most of them civilians, the Gaza Health Ministry said.

In recent weeks, it has said that it will not support Netanyahu's plan to launch a major military operation in Rafah. The White House explained that the assault would spell “disaster” for Palestinian civilians there, most of whom are living in makeshift tents and have little access to basic necessities.

The US has instead called on Israel to come up with a “credible” evacuation plan that would protect civilians from harm. Israel has not presented any safety plans so far, and Mr McGurk would discuss the issue with Israelis during his visit, the White House said.

Updated: February 22, 2024, 7:13 AM