Qatar 'cautiously optimistic' about progress of Gaza ceasefire talks

Foreign ministry spokesperson says it is too early to speak about a breakthrough

An Israeli army tank at a position along Israel's border with Gaza on Tuesday. AFP
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Qatar said on Tuesday it was cautiously optimistic about the progress of the Gaza ceasefire negotiations but that it was too soon to be talking about a breakthrough.

The comments by Qatar's foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al Ansari came on the second day of the latest round of Gaza truce negotiations in Doha.

Besides Qatar, mediators from Egypt and the United States are taking part in the negotiations as well as representatives from Israel and Hamas.

“We are cautiously optimistic because talks have resumed, but it's too early to announce any successes,” Mr Al Ansari said at a news conference.

More than three months of negotiations have failed to produce a pause in the war in Gaza that has killed more than 31,800 Palestinians, injured twice that number and created a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The fighting has also displaced most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people and destroyed large swathes of built-up areas.

“I don't think we are at a moment where we can say we are close to a deal,” said the Qatari official.

Teams from all parties were discussing the details of a potential deal, he confirmed, and the next step would be to hand Hamas counterproposals for review. That, he cautioned, would not be the final step in the process.

Sources familiar with the negotiations told The National that one of the main sticking points was the numbers and identities of the Palestinian prisoners Hamas wants released from Israeli prisons in exchange for the hostages it has held since October.

They said Israel viewed the number as too high and was objecting to Hamas’s demand for the release of high-profile Palestinians serving long jail terms or life sentences.

Top of the list is Marwan Barghouti, a senior official of the mainstream Fatah faction who is popular among Palestinians of all political stripes. His name has sometimes been floated as a possible replacement for President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 88.

Another Hamas demand opposed by Israel, according to the sources, is the inclusion of nearly 170 Palestinians who were released from Israeli prisons in 2011 but have since been re-arrested. Their release was part of a deal between Hamas and Israel that swapped Israeli soldier Sgt Gilad Shalit for 1,000 incarcerated Palestinians.

Qatar’s cautious optimism on Tuesday came as international alarm is rapidly growing over the humanitarian situation in Gaza where, according to a UN-backed report released on Monday, extreme shortages of food in some areas have already exceeded famine levels.

Mass deaths are imminent without an immediate ceasefire and surge of food aid to areas cut off by fighting and the Israeli blockade, the report said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is due back in the Middle East this week for the sixth time since the war broke out in October, also sounded the alarm over the humanitarian situation in Gaza during a visit to the Philippines on Tuesday.

“One hundred per cent of the Gaza population is in need of humanitarian assistance,” Mr Blinken said. It was “absolutely incumbent” upon Israel to prioritise assistance for those in desperate need, he added.

The Gaza war was triggered by a rampage on October 7 by Hamas in southern Israel that left some 1,200 people dead. Another 240 were taken hostage back to Gaza.

A week-long truce in late November saw Hamas release more than 100 hostages. At least 30 of the remaining captives are believed to have died as a result of Israel’s bombardment.

What’s on the table in Doha are Hamas’s conditions for a ceasefire which Israel has already dismissed as “unrealistic” but is yet to issue a formal response.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that annihilating Hamas was the war’s main objective and that Israel wanted to retain an unqualified security role in Gaza after the war ends.

Updated: March 19, 2024, 3:38 PM