Gaza truce mediators in frantic race to reach a deal before Ramadan

Hamas has gone back to seeking guarantee of permanent ceasefire, sources say

An Israeli tank drives near the border with the northern Gaza Strip amid ongoing fighting in the enclave as Ramadan approaches. EPA
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Negotiations on a Gaza truce are continuing in Egypt without a breakthrough in sight, with US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators racing against time to reach a deal before Ramadan.

The negotiations are the latest in a series that saw the mediators convene in Paris, Doha and Ramallah over the last three months in search of a ceasefire and a swap of dozens of hostages held by Hamas for thousands of Palestinian detainees.

The failure to agree on a deal so far is evidence of the deeply rooted distrust between Hamas and Israel and their mutual desire to claim victory in the longest and deadliest of the five wars they have fought since 2008, sources told The National.

“The negotiations have not yet been derailed,” a Palestinian source told The National. “Contacts are continuing in Cairo and Washington to facilitate reaching an agreement before the start of Ramadan.

“However, each side is now betting that the other will blink first, at the last minute, before Ramadan.”

The Egypt negotiations continued for a fourth day on Wednesday and were expected to conclude on Thursday.

The Hamas delegation left Egypt late on Tuesday night to consult with the group’s leadership both in exile and in the Gaza Strip on the latest proposals, the sources said.

Khalil Al Hayah, the deputy and confidant of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas's leader in Gaza, has led the group's delegation in the latest negotiations. The delegation was expected back in Egypt on Thursday, the sources said.

Biden says ceasefire with Israel in the hands of Hamas

Biden says ceasefire with Israel in the hands of Hamas

The urgency of reaching a deal before the month of Ramadan, which is expected to begin on Monday, was emphasised again on Tuesday night by US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The negotiations have also taken on added urgency because of the rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where Palestinians face starvation and widespread disease.

Mr Biden warned Hamas to agree to a Gaza truce by Ramadan after Mr Blinken urged the group to accept an “immediate ceasefire”.

“It's in the hands of Hamas right now,” Mr Biden said from Maryland. “There's got to be a ceasefire because if we get into circumstances where this continues to Ramadan, Israel and Jerusalem could be very, very dangerous.”

What’s being offered to Israel and Hamas is a six-week pause in the war, a prisoner and hostage swap and a surge in humanitarian aid reaching Gaza.

There are also provisions for the phased withdrawal from Gaza of Israeli forces, the reconstruction of Gaza when the war ends and the return of hundreds of thousands home to the north of the territory who have escaped the fighting to the south.

The Gaza war was triggered by a Hamas attack on south Israel on October 7, when its fighters killed about 1,200 people and took about 240 hostage.

Israel’s response has been a relentless bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 30,700 Palestinians, displaced the majority of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents and destroyed large swathes of built-up areas.

A week-long pause mediated by the US, Egypt and Qatar in late November saw Hamas free about 100 hostages in return for more than 200 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Of the estimated 130 hostages left in Hamas’s custody, at least 30 are believed to have died.

What are the obstacles to a deal?

Under the latest draft deal, Hamas would free 40-50 children, elderly people, women and injured hostages in return for an estimated 400 Palestinian detainees.

The group, however, wants to see as many as 3,000 more detainees freed in exchange for Israeli soldiers it has in captivity. Those freed should include high-profile Palestinian prisoners serving long jail terms or life in Israeli prisons, the group said.

However, Hamas remains deeply concerned that without guarantees of a permanent ceasefire, Israel will resume its military operations when the six-week truce expires. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to continue the war until Hamas is annihilated.

Hamas has already reduced the number of Palestinian prisoners it wants freed from 5,000 to 3,000 and, according to the sources, might be prepared to accept an even a smaller number to show flexibility.

However, the sources said, the group appears to have fallen back to its earlier position of accepting a six-week pause only if a permanent ceasefire was guaranteed to follow.

“They just don’t trust Israel enough to accept less than a permanent cessation of hostilities,” said one of the sources. “And they are resisting considerable pressure from Egyptian and Qatari mediators to show flexibility on this.”

Current proposals on the table provide for negotiations on a permanent ceasefire to commence as soon as the temporary one takes hold.

“This is causing a great deal of tension between Hamas’s delegates on one side and the Egyptians and Qataris on the other,” said the source.

In a bid to persuade Hamas to compromise, Egypt’s chief negotiator, intelligence head Abbas Kamel, held a closed meeting late on Tuesday with Mr Al Hayah before he left Egypt that night, said the sources. It was not known what the outcome of that meeting was.

The sources said an additional hurdle to the conclusion of the deal has been divisions on the deal’s proposed terms between Hamas’s leadership in Gaza, led by Mr Sinwar, and those in exile, led by the Doha-based Ismail Haniyeh.

Mr Haniyeh, they said, advocates the acceptance of the six-week truce to spare Gazans more suffering while working with the help of Egypt and Qatar towards a permanent ceasefire. In contrast, Mr Sinwar, Israel’s most wanted man, wants to hold out for better terms he believes he could secure given the uncertainty surrounding My Netanyahu’s political future.

A keen student of Israeli politics and media, Mr Sinwar enjoys the support and loyalty of Hamas’s military wing, by far the group’s most powerful faction.

Updated: March 06, 2024, 3:22 PM