Mediators and negotiators return to Egypt after Hamas agrees to Gaza ceasefire proposals

Israel will send a delegation 'to maximise the possibility' of reaching an agreement

The aftermath of an Israeli strike on homes, in Rafah, in the south of the Gaza Strip. Reuters
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Gaza war mediators and negotiators gathered in Egypt on Tuesday, a day after Hamas said it had accepted proposals to end the seven-month-old war in Gaza, sources told The National.

Israel has yet to officially respond to the proposals ironed out by US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators over the past week. However, its takeover of the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt suggests it intends to press on with the war in the Palestinian territory.

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said seizing the passage in Rafah was "an important step on the way to destroying the remaining military capabilities of Hamas”.

The deal accepted by Hamas late on Monday envisages a hostage and prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas as well as the gradual withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and “sustainable calm”.

It also provides for the return home of Palestinians displaced by the war, with about 1.5 million of them taking refuge in the southern border city of Rafah.

The White House said Hamas and Israel should be able to close the remaining gaps in their positions and reach a deal. "We believe that these gaps can be closed," John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, said on Tuesday.

Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly said he has no intention of ending the war in Gaza before the declared goal of destroying Hamas is achieved.

Agreeing to a permanent ceasefire, he said, would be tantamount to surrendering to the militant group, which has ruled Gaza since 2007.

His Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, said if hostages are not returned, Israel would expand its operations “all over the Strip, in the south, in the centre and in the north".

“Hamas only responds to force, so we will intensify our actions and the military pressure will result in us crushing … Hamas.”

The sources said CIA director William Burns, Qatari mediators, a senior Hamas official and a team of Israeli negotiators have all arrived in Egypt for a new round of negotiations.

Mr Netanyahu's office said that “while the Hamas proposal is far from meeting Israel's core demands, Israel will send a ranking delegation to Egypt in an effort to maximise the possibility of reaching an agreement on terms acceptable to Israel”.

The mediators assembling in Egypt will iron out details of the proposed deal and listen to comments and requests by the Israelis, said the sources.

However, in a move likely to deepen the distrust between Hamas and Israel and dishearten the mediators, the Israeli military said on Tuesday that it had established “operational control” over the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing overnight. The other side of the crossing is in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

Israel on Monday also began an assault on Rafah despite warnings of high civilian casualties, pushing the ceasefire talks with Hamas closer to the brink of collapse as they reached a critical stage.

The Israeli war cabinet unanimously decided Israel would continue its operation in Rafah despite Hamas's positive response to the ceasefire proposals, to “apply military pressure on Hamas so as to advance the release of our hostages and achieve the other objectives of the war,” the Prime Minister's office said.

But a Palestinian political source questioned whether the Israeli tactic would bring results.

It is clear that the end of the war is approaching, even if the Israelis refuse to do so in the coming days,” the source told The National. “As the war enters its eighth month, everyone is convinced that what hasn’t been achieved during that period will not be achieved in an additional month or more weeks.”

The Rafah crossing is the only link between Gaza and lands not controlled by Israel. Since the war started in October, it has been used to take humanitarian aid into the coastal territory and to evacuate the wounded to be treated.

Egypt, which shares borders with both Gaza and Israel, strongly condemned the Israeli move at the Rafah crossing.

The Egytian Foreign Ministry called on Israel to exercise maximum restraint and “abandon brinkmanship policies that will have long-term consequences and undermine the efforts being made to reach a lasting truce in Gaza”.

Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has harshly criticised the Israeli government since the Gaza war began, accusing it of excessive force, using food as a weapon and breaching international law.

Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said on social media site X that Mr Netanyahu was jeopardising a ceasefire by bombing Rafah.

“If Netanyahu genuinely wants a deal, he will negotiate the offer in earnest. Instead, he is jeopardising the deal by bombing Rafah,” Mr Safadi said.

Meanwhile, Jordan's King Abdullah II told US President Joe Biden in a private meeting on Monday that an Israeli offensive in Rafah would lead to a “new massacre” of Palestinian civilians and urged the international community to take urgent action.

“The king warned of the repercussions of the Israeli ground offensive on Rafah, which could cause a regional spillover of the conflict,” a statement from Jordan's royal court said after the monarch had lunch with Mr Biden at the White House.

The Gaza war was triggered by a deadly attack on southern Israel by Hamas, whose fighters killed about 1,200 people and took another 240 hostage. The Israeli response has to date killed more than 34,700 Palestinians and wounded twice as many.

The relentless Israeli bombardment has also displaced more than 80 per cent of Gaza's 2.3 million residents and razed much of the enclave's built-up areas.

A week-long pause in the war in late November led to Hamas releasing about 100 hostages. The 130 left are believed to include the remains of about 30 who died in captivity.

Khaled Yacoub Oweis contributed to this report from Amman

Updated: May 07, 2024, 5:55 PM