Egypt's El Sisi hopes for Gaza truce 'within days' despite lack of progress in talks

Sources close to negotiations said while there has been some compromise, Israel and Hamas remain divided over big issues

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said 'we are making a very sincere and honest effort to have a ceasefire'. Reuters
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Egypt's President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said on Friday he hoped a Gaza truce would be announced “within a few days at the most”, sounding an optimistic note as mediators intensified their efforts towards a pause in the war.

“We are making a very sincere and honest effort to have a ceasefire in the strip to save our brothers in Gaza, especially the innocent civilians,” the Egyptian leader told police cadets during a ceremony in Cairo.

“We hope that within a few days at the most we will reach a ceasefire. Let us hope there will be no negative development impacting on the situation.”

On the same day, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Austria that the US is working with mediators from Egypt and Qatar “intensively” to “bridge the remaining gaps” between Israel and Hamas on a ceasefire and hostage deal.

Mr Blinken said “conversations are happening now” which would likely “go on into the coming days.”

White House national security communications adviser John Kirby said the proposal was “certainly within the bounds in broad brush strokes … of the deal we've been working on now for several months”.

“We're cautiously optimistic that things are moving in the right direction but that doesn't mean that it's done,” he told reporters.

However, their optimism was not matched by sources familiar with the negotiations, who said that while mediators had been encouraged by some compromises made by Israel and Hamas, they remained divided over the main outstanding issues.

Hamas said on Thursday night that it has handed mediators a set of proposals it described in a statement as a “comprehensive vision” for a cessation of hostilities in Gaza founded on a halt to the “aggression,” delivery of relief aid, the return home of the displaced and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on the same night that the Hamas proposals included “unrealistic demands”.

Neither Hamas nor Israel disclosed details of the latest proposals, and Mr Netanyahu’s office said it had no comment when contacted by The National on Friday.

Sources said all the available evidence suggests that Mr Netanyahu was in no mood to agree to conditions that would allow Hamas to claim a victory.

The Israeli leader also remains determined to honour his declared war objective to completely destroy Hamas, a target he claimed can only be achieved if his troops invaded the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where he said the Palestinian group keeps its remaining military capabilities. Hamas holds about 130 Israeli hostages.

“In reality, Israel appears unwilling to leave Gaza before all the hostages are freed,” said one of the sources. “Netanyahu has empowered officials from the Mossad [Israel's spy agency] to negotiate and go back to him with proposals. He has shot them down every time.”

Israel, said the sources, has agreed to a phased withdrawal from Gaza but continues to insist on playing an unrestrained postwar security role in the territory, which Hamas strongly opposes.

Benjamin Netanyahu: 'We will finish the job in Rafah'

Benjamin Netanyahu: 'We will finish the job in Rafah'

However, Israel has offered a compromise on another issue, the sources said.

It has agreed to the unconditional return home of Palestinians displaced by the war, dropping its earlier condition that males between the ages of 18 and 50 would not be allowed to return to northern Israel.

Hamas, on the other hand, has agreed to a six-week pause in the fighting but only on condition that it receives guarantees from the mediators that a permanent ceasefire would follow.

It has also shown flexibility on the number of Palestinian detainees it wants to see walk free from Israeli prisons in exchange for the hostages it holds.

Hamas's distrust of Israel’s intentions have been exacerbated by recent Israeli attempts to secretly organise militias of fighting age men from tribal clans in Gaza known to be opposed to Hamas, the sources said. The proposed militias are meant to take over security of the strip after its withdrawal and generally operate as a local, Israeli-backed force against Hamas.

Three senior Gaza clan members have been arrested by Hamas in recent days, according to the sources.

In a brief and cryptic announcement, Hamas on Thursday appeared to refer to Israel’s alleged scheme. It said it values the “nationalistic position of Gaza’s families and clans for their rejection of the occupation’s malicious schemes”.

Mediators have been pushing for a deal for weeks. Their hopes for a ceasefire ahead of Ramadan, which began on the evening of March 10, were dashed because Hamas and Israel could not agree on the terms of an agreement, despite considerable US pressure.

They have nevertheless continued their contacts behind closed doors in the hope the war rivals would show some flexibility and agree to a deal that would allow the safe delivery and distribution of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, where the UN said a quarter of its 2.3 million residents are a step away from famine.

Updated: March 16, 2024, 3:47 AM