Gaza truce talks hang in balance over Hamas demand to end war

Hamas chief accuses Benjamin Netanyahu of sabotaging peace process

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Hamas negotiators returned to Doha from Cairo on Sunday without any signs of a breakthrough on an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire in Gaza, with the main hurdle to finalising the deal lying in Israel's reluctance to commit to ending the war, sources told The National.

Hamas is insisting on a permanent ceasefire and a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, demands Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again rejected on Sunday.

“The main point of contention in the deal remained Hamas’s demand for an Israeli pledge to stop the war, and Netanyahu insisting on rejecting this demand,” a Palestinian political source said.

“The Egyptian proposal worded this point in a vague way that allows the two parties to interpret it according to what they see.”

Both sides have appeared amenable to other points of the deal, which includes a multi-stage exchange of hostages held by Hamas for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, and the safe return of Gazans displaced from their homes during nearly seven months of war.

In a statement released by his office, Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday that “Israel was and is still ready to conclude a truce in the fight to free our hostages, but Hamas still adheres to its extremist positions”.

“Israel will not agree to Hamas's demands that mean surrender. Surrendering to Hamas’s demands would be a huge defeat for our nation. We will continue fighting until all goals are achieved,” he said.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh responded by accusing Mr Netanyahu of seeking to sabotage the truce effort while Hamas remained keen to “reach a comprehensive, interconnected agreement that ends the aggression, guarantees withdrawal, and achieves a serious prisoner exchange deal”.

“What is the meaning of the agreement if a ceasefire is not its first outcome?” Mr Haniyeh said in a statement seen by The National.

He said Hamas had consulted mediators and other Palestinian factions and held “intensive internal meetings and consultations” before sending its delegation back to Cairo with “positive and flexible positions” aimed at stopping the war.

In another move likely to have a bearing on the talks, Mr Netanyhu's government on Sunday shut down the Al Jazeera news network's operations in Israel, accusing it of incitement.

The broadcaster based in Qatar, one of three countries mediating the peace talks, was one of the few international media outlets reporting from Gaza on the devastation caused by Israel's war.

Adding to the difficulties faced by the mediators from the US, Egypt and Qatar to iron out a deal, Mr Netanyahu decided to keep his negotiators at home, with the Israeli media saying he would allow them to go only if Hamas agrees to a deal. They were scheduled to arrive in Egypt on Sunday.

Contacts with Israeli negotiators have been made through secure phone lines, according to the sources.

Reflecting the distrust between the two sides, Hamas's response to Mr Netanyahu's decision was to go back on promises it would free up to 30 hostages during the first phase of the proposed deal, said the sources. It is now saying it would free only 12-to-18 hostages.

Hamas is now also insisting that a permanent ceasefire must be declared at the end of the first phase of the deal, not the third and final stage as the US mediators are proposing, the sources said.

“Hamas realises that the main concern of the Americans and the Israelis is to secure the release of the hostages,” said one of the sources. “So, Hamas will stagger their release for as long as it could to ensure its demands are met.”

Hamas is believed to be holding about 130 hostages, including the remains of about 30 who had died since they were taken during the Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 that triggered the war. It released about 100 of them during a week-long truce in late November.

It wants to exchange the remaining hostages for hundreds of Palestinians detained in Israel on security-related charges.

Israel responded to the October attack with a bombing campaign and ground operations that have killed more than 34,600 Palestinians and injured twice as many.

It has also displaced about 80 per cent of the territory’s 2.3 million residents and created a humanitarian crisis, including widespread hunger.

The sources said Israel was willing to move its forces away from the enclave's two main roads that run the length of the strip to allow the return of displaced and the flow of humanitarian aid. It refuses to pull out from parts of Gaza city in the north until the later stages of the deal, said the sources.

CIA director William Burns, who arrived in Cairo on Friday for the latest talks, a day before a Qatari delegation and Hamas officials, also left for Doha on Sunday.

"CIA director Bill Burns is on his way to Doha to meet with Qatar's prime minister for discussions on mediation between Israel and Hamas," a source told The National.

Hamas sources said the US is offering “limited guarantees” that the war would end.

“It's not enough,” a Hamas official said, adding that the group wants other nations to guarantee the deal. However, mediators have already rejected the militants' demand for Russia, China and Turkey to be the guarantors of a ceasefire agreement.

Also stalling the negotiations are Mr Netanyahu's repeated threats to press ahead with plans to attack Rafah city in southern Gaza, on border with Egypt, where hundreds of thousands have taken refuge, saying it was necessary to achieve Israel's goal of destroying Hamas.

Hamas on Sunday claimed a rocket attack on Israeli forces near the Kerem Shalom crossing used for aid deliveries, with Israeli media reporting that at least seven people had been injured.

The Israeli military said it struck on the launch site, which it said was near the Rafah crossing, also in southern Gaza, and halted the entry of aid lorries through Kerem Shalom.

The closure of the crossing came soon after the head of the World Food Programme said there was “full-blown famine” in northern Gaza that was slowly spreading south. Although Israel has increased the amount of food it is allowing into Gaza, aid agencies say it is not nearly enough.

The UAE said on Sunday that it had delivered 400 tonnes of aid, enough to feed about 120,000 people in northern Gaza, in partnership with American Near East Refugee Aid, an NGO.

Rally in Tel Aviv

Despite the hurdles in the truce talks, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said “the current atmosphere has raised the possibility of reaching a ceasefire deal in Gaza”.

“The talks and efforts worldwide and across the region, and also the pressures exerted by the general public on the Israeli regime in international and regional arenas, have opened up such a possibility,” he said on the sidelines of the Organisation of the Islamic Co-operation summit in Banjul, Gambia.

As Hamas officials were meeting Egyptian and Qatari mediators in Cairo, relatives and supporters of the more than 130 Israeli hostages still in captivity rallied in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening, calling for Mr Netanyahu to accept a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.

“I'm here today to support a deal now, yesterday,” Natalie Eldor told Reuters. “We need to bring them back. We need to bring all the hostages back, the live ones, the dead ones. We got to bring them back. We have to switch this government. This has got to end.”

Israeli media reported that The Tikvah forum, a right-leaning organisation that represents some hostages' families, wrote a letter to Mr Netanyahu calling on him to resign if he “can't stand the pressure”.

Updated: May 06, 2024, 4:56 AM