There are several narratives on why the seven-day truce between Israel and Hamas collapsed in the early hours of Friday morning, allowing Israel to continue its devastating war on Gaza.
Speaking off the record, Egyptian officials say that the Israelis wanted to impose their terms on the prisoner-swap deal that had allowed for the release of over 100 Israeli women and children held in captivity since 7 October, the day of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood in southern Israel, and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
“We were getting into week two of the truce and the prisoner swap when a series of events happened leading to the collapse of the truce,” said one well-informed Egyptian source.
Hamas had declined to accept a set list of prisoners to be released, he said. Instead, it had said that while it was an Israeli prerogative to decide which Palestinians would be released from Israeli jails, Hamas would also decide who would get out and when.
“For [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, this was too complicated because it was showing that contrary to the [official] Israeli claim, Hamas was far from being defeated and defunct but was still there and was still in a position to impose its terms,” the source said.
He added that given the kind of pressure that Netanyahu was facing from his extreme-right government, it was impossible for him to accept the Hamas terms.
“Netanyahu himself reluctantly decided to go for a truce under the pressure of Israeli public opinion and that of the families of the hostages who were demanding that everything be done for the hostages to be released. When he decided to go for the truce, it was not exactly something that had the blessing of the extremist members of his government,” the source said.
According to the same source, the situation was complicated by a decision by Hamas to claim responsibility for an attack at a bus stop in East Jerusalem that led to the deaths of three Israelis before the two Palestinians who conducted the attack were physically eliminated by Israeli security.
“It was a moment when Netanyahu could not resist the pressure from within his own government to resume the war on Gaza,” the source said. He added that “by that point a failure to promptly resume strikes on Gaza would have got the extremist cabinet members to walk out on him, leading to the collapse of the government.”
Netanyahu also wanted to delay the end of the war to give himself time to “think of a new political trick” to save his “already done political career,” he added.
This narrative is only partially similar to the statement that came out in the Israeli media and through some US spokesmen. The similarity relates to the refusal by Hamas to release specific women hostages. However, the rationale behind this decision in the Israeli and US narrative is different. The Israeli-US claim is that Hamas has avoided the release of the Israeli women because of their treatment in custody.
According to a Cairo-based European source, Israel has not shared any real evidence with its friends in Europe, who have strongly supported its war on Gaza, for the claims of alleged mistreatment that the Israeli prisoners, including women, have gone through.
The claims run counter to the videos released by Hamas of the handover of Israeli hostages to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) during the seven-day truce. In most of the videos, the hostages looked relaxed and, in some cases, shared a gesture or word of gratitude with the Hamas operatives upon their hand-over to the ICRC.
Some Israeli politicians even blamed Israeli security for allowing two elderly Israeli women hostages to express gratitude to Hamas for their safe period in captivity.
According to another Egyptian source, the videos did not go unnoticed among Israeli government members. “It was not what they wanted the Israeli society to see, especially since these videos were being released in parallel to a growing public opinion that is strongly opposed to the war.”
There is also a question about the identity of these women and whether they are civilians or not. “The issue is still being discussed, and we are trying to get a full account on the number of hostages and the number of civilians. We are trying to get the details and are waiting for some answers from Hamas,” he said.
He added that Hamas is “not fully done with the count of the hostages and the identification of their locations. In any case, Hamas offered to release a number of elderly men, but the list proposed was declined by the Israeli side.”
Both Egyptian sources said that the Egyptian and Qatari mediators are ready to resume negotiations on the prisoner swap and truce. Neither shared a fixed assessment on when this deal could be regained, but they both insisted that there is a chance – “solid” in the words of one and “real” in the word of another – to reinstate it.
According to the first source, the issue is bound to take at least a week because Netanyahu cannot now stop his troops from their movement in the south of Gaza. Since Israel has resumed its brutal war on Gaza, it has expanded its military invasion to move south into the heart of Khan Younis, one of the main cities of southern Gaza, with the claim of pursuing Hamas leaders and operatives.
The same source said that short of significant internal Israeli pressure, Netanyahu will try to push as many Palestinians as possible to the southernmost point in Gaza, near the Rafah Crossing with Egypt and then start negotiating the terms of the security and administrative management of the Strip.
“We were working to keep the truce going as long as possible to allow for as much relief material to get into Gaza prior to the collapse of the truce as possible. Today, we still have the same objective of trying to help the [catastrophic] humanitarian situation in Gaza,” he said.
“We are working to reinstate the truce, not just to manage a very challenging humanitarian situation on the ground in Gaza, but also to avert the nightmarish scenario of pushing the over one million Palestinians from the north of the Strip to the already squeezed Palestinian side of Rafah to the Egyptian border.”
“If this happens, or rather when this happens, we will have to deal with the situation as a humanitarian situation, but for now we are trying to push for a ceasefire,” he said.
Meanwhile, speculation has been increasing over the possible date of a ceasefire. According to several sources who spoke this week, all on condition of anonymity, the US has asked Netanyahu and his Defence Minister to wrap up the war within two weeks.
However, according to one Washington-based Arab diplomat, the two-week range is an aspired deadline to end the war and not an agreed deadline for the war to come to an end. “The Americans have not received any promises from anyone in the Israeli Cabinet that the war will come to an end before Christmas, but we are hoping that this aspired US deadline will be observed by the Israeli government,” he said.
The same source said that the Americans are already talking with their regional allies in the Middle East and with Israel about the day after the war. “This discussion is an early sign that the countdown to the day after has started,” the Arab source stated.
According to Egyptian sources, the details of managing the day after the war will be much harder to agree on than the details of the prisoner swap and the deal on the previous truce.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly