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Israelis, Hamas in Qatar for proximity talks on ceasefire

February 26, 2024 at 8:05 pm

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (C) makes a speech during the opening session of the new term of the Qatari Shura Council in Doha, Qatar on October 24, 2023 [Qatari Emirate Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency]

Israeli officials headed on Monday to Qatar, where the ruling Emir separately met the chief of Hamas, as the enemies in the Gaza war closed in on a ceasefire-and-hostage deal that Washington says is now within reach, Reuters reports.

The presence of both sides for so-called proximity talks – meeting mediators separately while in the same city – suggested negotiations were further along than at any time since a big push at the start of February, when Israel rejected a Hamas counter-offer for a four-and-a-half-month truce.

In public, both sides continued to take positions far apart on the ultimate aims of a truce, while blaming each other for holding up the talks.

Israel says it will agree only to a temporary pause in fighting to secure the release of hostages. Hamas says it will not free them without an agreement that leads to a permanent end to the war.

After meeting Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the reclusive head of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, said his group had embraced mediators’ efforts to find an end to the war, and accused Israel of stalling while Gazans die under siege.

“We will not allow the enemy to use negotiations as a cover for this crime,” he said.

READ: Palestine health ministry warns of ‘catastrophic’ situation in north Gaza

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel was ready for a deal, and it was now up to Hamas to drop demands he described as “outlandish” and “from another planet”.

“Obviously, we want this deal if we can have it. It depends on Hamas. It’s really now their decision,” he told US network, Fox News, in an interview. “They have to come down to reality.”

The office of Qatar’s Emir said Al Thani and the Hamas chief had discussed Qatar’s efforts to broker an “immediate and permanent ceasefire agreement in the Gaza Strip”.

Earlier, a source told Reuters that an Israeli working delegation, made up of staff from the military and the Mossad spy agency, had flown to Qatar, tasked with creating an operational centre to support negotiations there. Its mission would include vetting proposed Palestinian prisoners that Hamas wants freed as part of a hostage release deal, the source said.

Israel continues to maintain in public that it will not end the war until Hamas is eradicated, while Hamas says it will not free hostages without an agreement on an end to the war.

“We’re totally committed to wipe Hamas off the face of the Earth,” Israel’s Economy and Industry Minister, Nir Barkat, told Reuters at a conference in the United Arab Emirates, where his presence signalled Israel’s continued acceptance by Arab states that has angered Palestinian groups.

Senior Hamas official, Sami Abu Zuhri, speaking to Reuters on Monday, said any ceasefire agreement would require “securing an end to the aggression, the withdrawal of the Occupation, the returning of the displaced, the entry of aid, shelter equipment and rebuilding”.

Israel is under pressure from its main ally, the United States, to agree a truce soon, to head off a threatened Israeli assault on Rafah, the last city at Gaza Strip’s southern edge where over half the enclave’s 2.3 million people are sheltering, which Washington fears could become a bloodbath.

‘We’ll go in’ 

Netanyahu insisted that the assault on Rafah was still planned, and Israel had a plan to evacuate civilians from harm’s way. Asked if Israel would attack the city even if Washington asked it not to, Netanyahu said: “Well, we’ll go in. We make our own decisions, obviously, but we’ll go in based on the idea of having also the evacuation of the civilians.”

But the momentum behind talks appears to have grown since Friday, when Israeli officials discussed terms of a hostage release deal in Paris with delegations from the United States, Egypt and Qatar, though not Hamas.

READ: Full-scale Israel military operation in Rafah would be ‘nail in coffin’ of Gaza aid, warns UN chief

The White House said they had come to “an understanding” about the contours of a hostage deal though negotiations were still under way. The Israeli delegation briefed Netanyahu’s war cabinet late on Saturday.

Egyptian security sources said proximity talks involving delegations from Israel and Hamas would be held this week, first in Qatar and later in Cairo.

Since Hamas killed 1,200 people and captured 253 hostages in its 7 October attack, Israel launched an all-out ground assault on Gaza, with nearly 30,000 people confirmed killed according to Gaza health authorities.

However, since then, it has been revealed by Haaretz that helicopters and tanks of the Israeli army had, in fact, killed many of the 1,139 soldiers and civilians claimed by Israel to have been killed by the Palestinian Resistance.

In a development that could have an impact on longer-term negotiations to end the conflict, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, which exerts limited civil control in parts of the West Bank, stepped down on Monday.

Mohammad Shtayyeh said, on Monday, he was resigning to allow for the formation of a broad consensus among Palestinians about political arrangements following the Gaza war.

The PA, recognised by the West as the official representative of Palestinians, lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007. Washington has called for reforms to the PA as part of an overall solution to govern Palestinian Territories including Gaza after the war.

READ: Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions ‘to meet’ in Moscow