The truce began in the early hours of 24 November. Israeli strikes on Gaza, which have killed more than 13,000 and left more than a million displaced, were suspended, allowing for the release of women and children held in Israeli prisons in return for hostages taken by Hamas on 7 October.
On Monday evening the truce was extended for a further 48 hours.
“This means that the truce should end on Wednesday evening [29 November], but we are working to secure another extension — maybe for two or three days,” said an informed Egyptian source speaking on condition of anonymity. He added that Israel “seems forthcoming” and an extension “looked possible”.
According to this and other government sources, Israel has no accurate count of the number of Israeli hostages held by Hamas. “From what we know, it took Hamas some time to count the hostages because some were taken by non-Hamas operatives and communications are not easy,” said the Egyptian source.
Speaking on Tuesday, he said neither Egypt nor Qatar have accurate figures for the number of civilian and military hostages abducted on 7 October. Nor have the American or Israeli intelligence services been able to determine the figure.
“We are talking about hundreds,” the source said, suggesting the fact Israel is being forthcoming over an extension of the truce indicates “the number is not small at all.”
Asked if the number is big enough to merit the extension of the truce for another week, he answered “yes, and more.” On whether it was possible that a sequence of extensions could evolve into a sustainable ceasefire, he said “this is precisely what we are working on but there are no guarantees.” First, he explained, there has to be unity within the Israeli government and so far “this is lacking.”
Some Israeli leaders had not been in favour of the truce to start with. Images of Israeli hostages being escorted by Hamas to the hand-over points and the positive statements some hostages shared on the conditions of their captivity have infuriated the pro-war camp in the Israeli leadership.
“It is a very tight balance, and we are working with the Americans to support the camp in favour of the truce,” according to the source.
But Israel is just one element in the complex configuration required for further extensions of the truce to evolve into a ceasefire. The international community is also significant.
“When we were arguing that the Abraham Accords were not an answer to the Arab-Israeli struggle we were accused of blocking Arab-Israeli normalisation,” said the source. “Today, the whole world, including the Americans, can see what we meant.”
According to Egyptian and European diplomatic sources, this belated realisation is prompting serious diplomatic action.
“It is now clear that without some credible plan for the future that includes all Palestinians this war will end and another war will start sooner or later — in months or years, it does not matter,” said one Middle East-based diplomat. The world has finally come to understand that what Gaza needs is not a reconstruction plan that will be followed by another war which will demolish everything that was built.
Whatever the pressure the Israeli leadership is facing from within Israeli society and changes in the position the world is taking on the Arab-Israeli issue, there is no road to a final settlement in the absence of Palestinian political readiness, cautions the Egyptian source. And there is little sign of such readiness “among either the factions or the Palestinian Authority (PA) .”
Not only are Hamas and Islamic Jihad unsure of what to do next given the number of Palestinian casualties and the extent of the destruction rained down on Gaza by the relentless Israeli bombardment, “it is hard to detect any unity within Hamas’ own leadership.” And Iranian-supported Islamic Jihad, according to the source, needs to decide whether or not they want to allow the PA any role in co-managing Gaza, in terms of security, in order to pursue a political settlement.
And even if Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the other factions were to move towards giving the PA a chance, it is far from obvious, argued the source, how the PA could assume the responsibilities of co-running Gaza or pursuing a political settlement.
“There is no doubt that the popularity of Abu Mazen [PA leader Mahmoud Abbas] in Gaza is at zero; it is also hard to see how the PA could send security elements to Gaza” given the way Gazans feel the PA has let them down and the fact “they are particularly disappointed with the performance of Abu Mazen.”
There is also the problem of the way Abu Mazen’s international credibility has been compromised given his failure to manage Palestinian divisions.
In 2007, following legislative victory a year earlier, Hamas opted to unilaterally take control of Gaza and expel the PA. In the same year the last round of US-sponsored Palestinian-Israeli talks failed in Annapolis, leading to 15 years of political stagnation. Today, the source said, “it is really hard” to see Abu Mazen picking up the pieces on either side without “the help of new blood.”
He argued that structural reform of the PA “is an absolutely necessary” prerequisite for the world to support recognition of a Palestinian state ahead of any detailed Palestinian-Israeli settlement. There is also a need for major reconstruction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) “in order for the PLO to function as a comprehensive umbrella considered by Palestinians as their sole legitimate representative”.
Should the PA get its act together the world will be in a better place to pressure Israel to come to an agreement and Hamas to act less defiantly. According to the source, Cairo, like other regional players, is talking with the Palestinian leadership about the next move, “not just on the ground in Gaza, but the next political move.”
“We don’t just want to end the war and to start reconstruction, we want to move towards Palestinian statehood,” he said.
This week, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said open-ended talks about a two-state solution have been exhausted and the time has come to move towards acknowledging Palestinian statehood.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly