Negotiators press for long-term Israel-Hamas ceasefire

(The Australian, 30/11/2023) )

The chief brokers of the Israel-Hamas hostage-prisoner exchange are pushing the two sides for a long-term ceasefire that would prolong the truce in Gaza beyond the current two-day extension and start talks that would end the war altogether, said Egyptian and Qatari officials.

On Tuesday, Hamas released 12 hostages, including 10 Israelis, as part of the current extension of the truce with Israel. The hostages have arrived in Israel, according to Israeli and Egyptian officials.

A long-term ceasefire would likely require Israel and Hamas to make hard-to-swallow concessions, such as trading Israeli soldiers for potentially thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, the officials said. And it would require Israel to hold back on an offensive in southern Gaza intended to capture the strip and kill Hamas’s top leadership, the officials said. Hamas could also have to accept demilitarisation, they added.

US and Israeli officials have said they fully expect the war to restart again after the exchange of hostages and prisoners fully plays out. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has emphasised in recent days his intention to realise Israel’s goal of eliminating Hamas with full force after the militant group’s deadly rampage in southern Israel last month.

But the Qatari and Egyptian officials said that the current temporary truce was building the sort of trust needed to move ahead.

“We are working to strengthen the Qatari mediation role in reaching a truce and then a permanent ceasefire,” Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said Tuesday.

In a sign of the seriousness of the talks, CIA director William Burns arrived in Qatar on Tuesday, said a US official and a person familiar with the matter. He is set to attend talks that are also expected to include David Barnea, chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, and senior officials from Qatar, which has close ties to Hamas’s political leadership.

Burns’s and Barnea’s trips to Doha are among multiple visits both have made to Qatar, highlighting the extensive behind-the-scenes role US, Israeli and Arab intelligence services are playing in the Gaza diplomacy. Egyptian intelligence services are also playing a key part in speaking to Hamas leaders inside Gaza.

The intelligence chiefs will meet with the Qatari prime minister to build on the progress of the current agreement and to initiate further discussions about the next phase of a potential longer-term ceasefire deal, according to a person briefed on the visit.

The aim is to move discussions beyond the current arrangement that prolongs the initial four-day deal by a day for every 10 hostages Hamas hands over, Egyptian officials said.

The talks now centre on how to free elderly males, dead bodies and soldiers once all the women and children are out.

Qatari and Egyptian mediators are pressing to go further still, for a longer pause in the fighting, in the hope it will evolve into a permanent ceasefire, senior Egyptian officials said.

As well as allowing for the release of more hostages, further extensions could give Israel more time to define and prepare for a post-war political settlement in the enclave.

“We are trying to build trust and goodwill to open the door for a long-term peace,” said a senior Egyptian official. “It is a long shot but so far both sides have refrained from seeking military advantage during the pause which gives us hopes that it is doable.”

Israel says it will resume its military operation in Gaza once the current hostage-and-prisoner-release process is exhausted, shifting its focus to the south of Gaza, where most of the population has been pushed. “After the ceasefire, the firing will renew. The entire war cabinet is united on this stance,” Israeli minister Benny Gantz, a member of the five-person war cabinet, said Tuesday. “There will not be a single place that will be a safe haven for terrorists and the heads of Hamas.”

Washington has faced criticism, domestically and internationally, for its full support for the Israeli military offensive and its public stance against a full cessation of hostilities.

In a sign of a shift in tone, a senior U.S. administration official said Monday that President Joe Biden had told Israel in “very clear language” that the military campaign as it moves south “must be done in a way that is to a maximum extent not designed to produce significant or further displacement.” Still, an American official said securing a long-term ceasefire that averted a renewed military offensive in the Gaza Strip was likely unattainable at the moment.

“I don’t think a prolonged ceasefire is in the cards at this stage,” the U.S. official said.

There have been hiccups along the way during the implementation of the deal. On Saturday, the hostage release was delayed for hours after Hamas refused to hand over the captives until Israel allowed more aid into the enclave, and contended Israel was violating the terms of an agreement to free Palestinian prisoners in order of jail time served, with the longest-serving to be freed first.

But Egyptian officials said that when they and Qatari officials rushed to save the arrangement, there was a sense that both Hamas and Israel had an interest in prolonging the period of calm.

Ansari, the Qatari spokesman, said Tuesday that the fact that the deal didn’t collapse, despite accusations of violations by both sides, provided some optimism.

“Our hope is to reach a sustainable truce,” said Ansari. “We need the push of the whole international community.”

In an interview last week, before the hostage deal was secured, Ansari said the need of the hour was “to seize every opportunity we have for de-escalation” and exert international pressure on the Israelis “that enough is enough.”

There were skirmishes in northern Gaza on Tuesday between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters, with gunfire and the detonation of explosive devices. Israel said that a number of its soldiers were lightly injured. Each side accused the other of breaking the terms of the temporary ceasefire, but neither called off the deal.

Israel says 173 hostages remain in Gaza, including six minors. Hamas, which claims that its members don’t hold all of the hostages, has told mediators it has spoken to other smaller militant groups in the enclave that have agreed to release the people they hold, the officials said. More than 40 of the hostages are currently held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the officials added.

Hamas is expected to release another 10 hostages on Tuesday, the first day of a two-day extension to the deal that is set to see 30 Palestinian prisoners freed and a continuation of the temporary ceasefire.

Over the past four days, Hamas has released 50 Israeli hostages in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel as part of their initial agreement. Israel had also committed to allowing at least 200 trucks carrying humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip daily.

Israel launched its military operation on Gaza in response to Hamas’s surprise assault on southern Israel on Oct. 7 that Israeli officials say killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and ended days later with more than 200 people abducted to Gaza as hostages.

So far 14,800 people in Gaza have been killed in the war, including some 6,000 children and 4,000 women, according to the authorities in Hamas-controlled Gaza. The figures don’t distinguish between militants and civilians.

The pause in hostilities has allowed more aid to get into Gaza, though far below the levels required, say humanitarian groups. That includes some aid that reached the north of Gaza during the cessation of the conflict for the first time in weeks. Aid workers who reached the north saw hunger, desperation and destruction, according to the World Food Program.

Supplies remain so short that there are lines over a mile long for cooking gas in the southern town of Khan Younis, the U.N. said, while others burn doors and window frames to make fire over which to cook.

The Biden administration has taken pains to point out its efforts on behalf of ordinary Palestinians living in Gaza. On Tuesday, the U.S. is sending the first of three military cargo planes to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza via Egypt, senior administration officials said.

The aircraft will deliver medical equipment, food, winter assistance and other aid from the U.N., officials said. Administration officials said the delivery isn’t linked to the release of hostages, though officials are taking advantage of the pause in fighting to get aid into Gaza.

“When this current phase of hostage releases is over, we have made very clear that this level, or increased levels ideally, needs to be sustained,” said another administration official.

U.S. officials are also eager to help allow commercial goods to get into Gaza, but doing so would take the support of Israel as it considers its approach to the second phase of the conflict in the south of the enclave, U.S. officials said.

●Gordon Lubold, Warren P. Strobel, Jared Malsin, Dion Nissenbaum and Dov Lieber contributed to this article.

The Wall Street Journal

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