Hamas delegation returns to Qatar for deliberations on Gaza ceasefire

Israel's Netanyahu vows to attack Rafah 'with or without a deal' with Hamas

A camp housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in southern Gaza. AFP
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A Hamas delegation returned to Qatar on Tuesday after a day of intense talks in Cairo with Egyptian mediators on a new set of proposals to pause the Gaza war.

The delegation, led by senior official Khalil Al Haya, left Cairo late on Monday night, sources familiar with the meetings told The National.

The delegation will consult Hamas leaders, both those in exile in Qatar and in Gaza, before formulating a final response, said the sources, who declined to be identified, pending an official statement.

Both Israel and Hamas have come under renewed pressure to secure a deal to end the war, which has killed more than 34,500 Palestinians since October.

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to launch a military offensive into the southern city of Rafah, potentially undermining the delicate ceasefire negotiations.

Mr Netanyahu said the Israeli army would enter Rafah to destroy Hamas’s battalions there “with or without a deal”.

“The idea that we will halt the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” Mr Netanyahu's office said after his meeting with families of hostages.

On the same day, Mr Netanyahu said that the Israeli military had begun ordering civilian evacuations from areas of Rafah.

“We have begun the evacuation of the population in Rafah – there will be an operation there soon,” Mr Netanyahu said, later adding that about 200,000 civilians have already “moved” in anticipation of an Israeli invasion.

His comments came as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to arrive in Israel to push for a ceasefire and to avert the Israeli operation on Rafah, where about 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering.

The US and many of Israel's other allies have repeatedly warned against a ground operation in Rafah, which they say would further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly reaffirmed that Israel will fight until Hamas is destroyed. He is under pressure from members of his cabinet to push forward with the operation, despite the risk of straining his relations with the administration of President Joe Biden.

He also risks alienating other cabinet members, as well as opposition protesters, who have urged him to prioritise the release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas, which an invasion of Rafah would jeopardise.

Despite Mr Netanyahu's comments, the talks towards a ceasefire are continuing. A senior delegation from Israel's spy Mossad agency and its domestic security counterpart were expected to arrive in Egypt later this week for talks with Egyptian mediators.

The new proposals include an initial truce of three to four weeks during which up to 30 hostages held by Hamas would be released in exchange for about 1,000 Palestinians jailed in Israel, the sources said.

The second phase of the deal would include a four-week truce and the release of more hostages and prisoners.

A truce lasting one year or a permanent ceasefire remains undecided. If agreed, it will go into effect in the later stages of the deal.

The sources said Hamas remained adamant that the deal must guarantee a permanent ceasefire, full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the unconditional return of displaced Palestinians to their homes in northern and central Gaza as well as the flow of adequate humanitarian aid into the territory.

To ensure the safety of the displaced while they make their way home from southern Gaza, Hamas wants Israel to redeploy its forces away from the enclave's two main roads: Salahedeen and Al Rasheed.

It also wants Israel to allow makeshift homes and tents into Gaza to house the tens of thousands of Palestinians whose homes have been damaged or destroyed in the war.

“Israel is reluctant to commit to a permanent ceasefire and insists that the return of the displaced must be gradual,” said one of the sources.

The war in Gaza was triggered by an attack by Hamas on southern Israel on October 7, when the group's fighters killed about 1,200 people and took hostage about another 250.

Israel responded with a devastating bombardment campaign and ground operations that has destroyed most of the enclave. More than 34,500 Palestinians have been killed, with twice as many wounded.

The Israeli onslaught also displaced most of Gaza residents and razed large swathes of built-up areas.

A truce in late November saw the release of 100 hostages by Hamas. Of the remaining 130 hostages, around 30 are believed to have died in captivity.

Their remains would be swapped for Palestinian prisoners in the third and final phase of the proposed deal, the sources said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday described the new truce terms as “extraordinarily generous”, while the White House asked fellow mediators Egypt and Qatar to increase pressure on Hamas to accept the latest push to halt the war.

Antony Blinken arrives in Saudi Arabia for talks on Gaza

Antony Blinken arrives in Saudi Arabia for talks on Gaza

US President Joe Biden urged the Egyptian and Qatari leaders in telephone calls on Monday night “to exert all efforts to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas”.

Speaking in Riyadh on his seventh visit to the region since the start of the Gaza war, Mr Blinken underscored the need for Hamas to “decide quickly” on the truce proposal. He told a World Economic Forum special meeting that he was “hopeful that they will make the right decision”.

Also in Riyadh, Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said “the proposal has taken into account the positions of both sides”. He added: “We are hopeful.”

Since the expiry of the November truce, mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the US have been trying to broker another, without success.

Meanwhile, the threat of famine is looming over Gaza.

Updated: May 01, 2024, 6:44 AM