Hamas and Israel far from Gaza truce as new details emerge from talks

Militant group rejects absence of firm guarantees for permanent ceasefire and Israeli restrictions on return of displaced Palestinians

Palestinian worshippers gather in the courtyard of Gaza city's historic Omari Mosque, which has been heavily damaged in Israeli bombardment, on the first day of Eid Al Fitr. AFP
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Disagreements over the return of displaced Palestinians in Gaza and vague language on the absence of guarantees for a permanent ceasefire are stumbling blocks in truce talks between Hamas and Israel, sources told The National.

Sections of the latest proposal – initially rejected by Hamas but still being studied – include strict Israeli conditions on the return of hundreds of thousands of displaced Gazans.

Sources said Khalil Al Hayya, Hamas’s representative in the latest round of negotiations, gave the group’s initial response to mediators from the US, Egypt and Qatar before he left Egypt at the end of this week's talks.

But he also told the mediators that Hamas’s final response would be given after consultations with its leadership in Gaza and in Doha.

Mr Al Hayya is the deputy of Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, Israel’s most-wanted man.

Hamas has already said, in a statement on Tuesday, that the proposals did not meet its demands but it would further study them before giving its final response to the mediators. The statement gave no details.

Hamas has long insisted that it wants Israel to completely withdraw from Gaza and agree to a permanent ceasefire and the release of high-profile Palestinian prisoners serving life or long jail terms as part of a prisoner and hostage swap.

Those prisoners, it insists, must include Marwan Barghouti, a senior Palestinian leader from the mainstream Fatah faction who has long been tipped as a possible successor to President Mahmoud Abbas, who is in his eighties.

The deadlock in the Gaza negotiations comes amid US President Joe Biden’s growing frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war, increasing pressure on Washington’s closest Middle East ally to agree to a truce.

Speaking to The National on Wednesday, the two sources said Hamas’s main objection to the proposals was over the return of the displaced and the absence of a firm reference to a permanent ceasefire following an initial, six-week truce.

The proposals provide for a gradual return of the displaced to northern Gaza, with Israel adamant that it would only allow 2,000 a day, excluding fighting-age males, to return home during the six-week truce, said the sources.

Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced by the war, now in its seventh month. An estimated 1.5 million of those have taken refuge in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, close to the Egyptian border.

Hamas, according to the sources, has also rejected what it sees as “loose language” on Israel’s redeployment of forces away from urban areas during the initial truce and allowing it to unilaterally determine new positions for its troops.

“Hamas believes this can potentially allow Israel to select positions that give it control over wide areas or allow it to create buffer zones,” one of the two sources said.

Hamas is also opposed to the use in the proposals of the term “sustainable quiet” to follow the six-week truce, preferring instead to have firm guarantees of a permanent ceasefire.

Hamas has long argued that Israel intended to resume military operations after the expiry of the six-week truce and the release of the estimated 130 hostages currently held by Hamas and allied Gaza groups.

Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that the war in Gaza will not end before Hamas’s governance and military capabilities have been dismantled to avoid a repeat of the group’s October 7 attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people and involved the abduction of about 250 others.

Israel’s response to the attack – the deadliest against the country since its creation in 1948 – has been the relentless bombardment of Gaza that has to date killed more than 33,300 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. It has also created a humanitarian crisis and razed vast swathes of built-up areas.

Hamas released about 100 hostages during a week-long truce in late November. Mediators have since been unable to broker another pause in the war despite extensive negotiations and US pressure.

Of the estimated 130 hostages remaining in Gaza, about 30 are believed to have died in captivity, most likely from Israel’s bombardment.

The proposals presented to Hamas provide for the release of about 40 women, children and elderly and ailing hostages in return for 900 Palestinians incarcerated in Israel, including 100 serving life or long jail terms.

However, Hamas rejects Israel’s suggestion that the militant group release adult males to top up the number of hostages freed if the elderly, children, women and ailing captives are fewer than 40.

Hamas is widely suspected to be planning to keep male Israeli soldiers and the remains of those who died in captivity for the later stages of the hostage and prisoner swap, to secure freedom for thousands of Palestinians or as bargaining chips if Israel does not fully pull out from Gaza and agree to a permanent ceasefire.

Updated: April 10, 2024, 1:26 PM