Gaza truce talks resume but Netanyahu warns deal depends on hostages being freed

US, Qatari and Egyptian envoys meet Israeli and Hamas negotiators in Egypt in renewed push for deal

Family and supporters of hostages held in the Gaza Strip by Hamas show their painted palms during an anti-government protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday. AP
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Gaza truce negotiations resumed in Egypt on Sunday amid mounting pressure on both Hamas and Israel to end the six-month-old conflict, with little evidence that a deal is within reach.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a weekly cabinet meeting that Israel will not agree to a ceasefire until hostages being held in Gaza are released. He also called Hamas's demands for a truce "extreme."

US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators have for months been trying to broker a deal to end the war, which entered its seventh month on Sunday, and enact a hostage and prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas.

Sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations said neither Israel nor Hamas were expected to make meaningful concessions in the latest negotiations in Egypt and warned that growing US pressure for a deal may not be enough to clinch one.

US President Joe Biden wrote to the leaders of Qatar and Egypt last week requesting that they put pressure on Hamas to accept a deal.

Mr Biden also had a tense telephone conversation with Mr Netanyahu on Thursday in which he urged an “immediate ceasefire”.

He also hinted for the first time at making US support for Israel conditional on curtailing the killing of civilians – more than 33,000 Palestinians to date – and improving humanitarian conditions in Gaza.

Israel has also come under international pressure over the killing last week in Gaza of seven aid workers from the US-based World Central Kitchen. Israel has admitted “wrongdoing” and said it was firing two officers over the incident.

Another source of pressure on Israel to reach a deal comes from growing opposition to Mr Netanyahu.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protested against him on Saturday. Organisers said about 100,000 people converged at a Tel Aviv crossroads renamed “Democracy Square” since mass protests against controversial judicial reforms last year.

The protesters in Tel Aviv were later joined by families of hostages held in Gaza and their supporters.

Hamas, on the other hand, appears immune to pressure, signalling it has no intention to make concessions.

The group said in a statement on Saturday that it continues to stand by its demand for an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and a permanent ceasefire.

Israel has rejected the demand and is insisting that it retains an overall security role over Gaza after the war.

CIA director William Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani are due to join Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and his Israeli counterpart David Barnea in Sunday’s negotiations.

Hamas will be represented by Khalil Al Haya, the deputy and confidant of Hamas’s leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, Israel’s most wanted man.

Mr Biden's Thursday call with Mr Netanyahu included discussions on “empowering his negotiators” to reach a deal, according to US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

Washington blames the lack of a deal on Hamas's refusal to release sick and other vulnerable hostages, while Qatar says Israel’s objections to the return of displaced Gazans are the main obstacle to a deal.

Hamas is demanding the unconditional return of the displaced to their homes in northern and central Gaza. The overwhelming majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced since the war began on October 7. About 1.5 million have taken refuge in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza close to Egypt’s border.

Israel, according to the sources, rejects the Hamas demand on the return of the displaced and was now proposing the return of about 60,000 during a proposed six-week ceasefire, with the returnees undergoing thorough security checks before they are allowed back to their homes.

It has also rejected Hamas’s demand that its forces clear the territory’s two main roads – Salahedeen and Al Rasheed – to allow the safe return of the displaced and the transfer of humanitarian aid to northern Gaza, where tens of thousands are facing a possible famine if food is not delivered there soon.

“Israel keeps announcing to the world it has empowered its negotiators to pursue a deal. But the government there routinely rejects proposals hammered out over days and days of negotiations and sending us back to square one,” said one of the sources.

“Israel’s counterproposals are also impossible for Hamas to accept, but it sends them just to pressure Hamas.”

The Gaza war was set off by an attack on southern Israel by Hamas on October 7 in which 1,200 were killed and about 240 taken hostage. Israel’s response has been relentless bombardment followed by a ground operation that laid most of the coastal enclave to waste and created a humanitarian crisis.

A week-long truce in late November led to the release of about 100 hostages, leaving Hamas and its allies in Gaza with about 130, including at least 30 who are believed to have died in captivity.

Updated: April 07, 2024, 12:53 PM