Hamas demand for permanent Gaza ceasefire leaves mediation efforts hanging by thread

Hamas's leader in Gaza says Israeli pledge must be in writing

Israeli soldiers work on a tank in a staging area near the border with Gaza. AP
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US President Joe Biden's proposals to end the Gaza war suffered a serious setback, with Hamas telling mediators it will accept the plan only if Israel commits in writing to a permanent ceasefire.

Ismail Haniyeh, the group’s political leader and who is in Qatar, conveyed the position to mediators from the US, Egypt and Qatar in Doha on Wednesday, sources told The National on Thursday.

Mr Haniyeh was in contact with Yahya Sinwar, Hamas's leader in Gaza, through voice and written notes throughout meetings he had with Egyptian and Qatari mediators, the sources added.

“The final message from Sinwar came late last night and was addressed to the Qataris and Egyptians,” one source said. “It was brief. He only said Hamas had every intention to carry on fighting until its conditions are met.”

Hamas's dissatisfaction with the current terms of the proposals outlined by the US was evident in a brief statement released on Wednesday night.

“The [Hamas] movement and resistance factions will deal positively and seriously with any agreement based on the complete cessation of the [Israeli] aggression, full withdrawal and an exchange of prisoners,” said the statement, attributed to Mr Haniyeh.

The US chief mediator, CIA director William Burns, countered Hamas's condition by offering a guarantee that negotiations on a permanent ceasefire would begin as soon as the first six-week phase of the plan ends, the sources said.

They said Hamas rejected the offer, insisting it would only accept the deal if it included a written commitment by Israel to a permanent ceasefire, despite warnings from Washington – relayed to the group by the Egyptian and Qatari mediators.

These warnings, said the sources, included the arrest of Hamas’s exiled leaders and freezing the group’s assets outside the Palestinian territories. Hamas is designated as a terrorist group by the US, EU and Israel.

“The US threats were neither implicit nor subtle. They were direct and were relayed during tense meetings between Haniyeh and the Egyptians and Qataris,” said another source.

Marathon ceasefire talks

The latest proposals announced by Mr Biden on May 31 involve a six-week pause in fighting during which a limited hostage and prisoner swap will take place, coupled with a significant increase in aid to Gaza.

The second phase proposes talks on a “permanent end to hostilities” and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, with the rest of the hostages released, while the final phase brings in the reconstruction of Gaza.

The release of the hostages held by Hamas will be in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli jails. No precise figure has been announced, but they are expected to be in the low thousands.

The Doha negotiations on Wednesday brought together Mr Burns of the CIA and Abbas Kamel, Director of Egypt's the General Intelligence Directorate, as well as Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdurrahman Al Thani.

Since the war in Gaza broke out nearly eight months ago, the trio have pushed for a ceasefire and a prisoner and hostage swap but all efforts have so far been unsuccessful.

The sole truce, brokered in November, only lasted a week.

Several times over the past months, Mr Biden said that a truce was on the horizon, only for the negotiations to collapse each time.

In February, he said that Israel had agreed to a ceasefire by the start of the month of Ramadan on March 10 – a deadline that passed with military operations in full swing.

Talks are also taking place in Cairo where two of Hamas’s closest allies – the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – are meeting Egyptian officials to discuss the latest proposals.

The aim of the talks, according to the sources, is to persuade the factions to pressure Hamas to respond positively to the proposals.

The sources said that Hamas introduced a new point of contention in already difficult negotiations – the question of who will control the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

Israel captured the Gaza side of the crossing on May 7 and later said it had done so to prevent money and weapons from being smuggled into Gaza through underground tunnels.

Egypt, which has denied the charges, has been in contact with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to find a formula acceptable to Israel for the running of the crossing's Gaza end.

However, Hamas has informed the Egyptians that it must be included in any new arrangement for the crossing, the sources said, a condition that is likely to be rejected by Israel.

Israel has repeatedly said its goal is to dismantle Hamas's military and governing capabilities.

Egypt has refused to reopen the crossing unless Israel withdraws its forces from the other side, as well as at a corridor that runs the entire length of its border with Gaza.

The Gaza war was caused by a Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7 that left about 1,200 killed and saw the militants capture about 240 hostages that they took back to Gaza.

The attack, the deadliest in one day since Israel was created in 1948, drew a devastating Israeli response that has to date killed more than 36,600 Palestinians and wounded more than twice that number. Most of the territory’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced and large swathes of built-up areas laid to waste.

Meanwhile, a joint statement from the Leaders of the United States, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Thailand, and the United Kingdom, called for achieving a ceasefire.

"As leaders of countries deeply concerned for the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, including many of our own citizens, we fully support the movement towards a ceasefire and hostage release deal now on the table and as outlined by President Biden," said the statement.

"There is no time to lose. We call on Hamas to close this agreement, that Israel is ready to move forward with, and begin the process of releasing our citizens," it added.

"At this decisive moment, we call on the leaders of Israel as well as Hamas to make whatever final compromises are necessary to close this deal and bring relief to the families of our hostages, as well as those on both sides of this terrible conflict."

Updated: June 07, 2024, 8:28 AM