Truce talks: A new approach

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 2 Apr 2024

Dina Ezzat on ongoing efforts to secure a truce in Gaza

Israel s war on Gaza
Israel s war on Gaza


As Israel’s war on Gaza nears its seventh month against the backdrop of an ever-increasing death toll, famine and continued blanket bombing, an Israeli delegation arrived in Cairo to discuss a possible prisoner swap deal. The talks, say Egyptian sources, will address a key core element for any truce. They add that though many ceasefire proposals have been put forward since a one-week truce in November expired, their failure to find common ground between the Palestinian factions and Israel demands a new approach.

“There are specific sticking points, including details of the prisoner swap. We decided to work on this point in the hope that it will allow things to move on,” said a source close to the Egyptian mediation team. Acknowledging that progress has been very slow since the first senior Israeli delegate arrived in Cairo over the weekend, he explained that “things are very complicated given the situation on the ground and the difficult political calculations of both sides.”

According to the same sources, the absence of a Hamas delegation is symptomatic of the difficulties facing the talks rather than an indication the negotiations have reached a stalemate. The same source stressed that Egypt is currently talking to Hamas and with Qatari and American mediators to see if it is possible to build on the recent UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

While Hamas welcomed the resolution and expressed its willingness to engage, Israel shrugged off the Security Council vote, saying it would continue the war, including its planned attack on Rafah.

“Time is critical,” says the source. “If we miss a prisoner swap deal prior to the planned Israeli ground offensive on Rafah we might land in a very uncertain situation.” 

A possible escalation between Israel and Hizbullah in southern Lebanon following this week’s Israeli elimination of a senior Iranian military official in Damascus could further complicate the situation given Iran’s connections with Hamas.

Last month, a senior Hamas delegation, including political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh, was in Tehran for talks, while on Sunday Egypt’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson said Sameh Shoukri had spoken with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir Abdollahian about developments in Gaza.

Though they expect some Iranian reaction to the Damascus attack, Egyptian sources are not sure when, where, or what the response will be. Some speculate about a possible escalation between Hizbullah and Israel, others a surge in Houthi attacks on American shipping in the Red Sea and an increase in pro-Iranian militia attacks against American facilities in Iraq.

“Any escalation that involves Iran could derail ceasefire talks, and even talks for a prisoner swap deal,” said the Egyptian source. And now, he added, there are additional complications ensuing from the arrest of “security elements” that entered Gaza last week, with some Palestinian factions claiming the entry was masterminded by a senior intelligence official close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

This “incident”, the source said, is adding to tensions between the Palestinian factions in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah which have been growing since Abbas assigned a new Palestinian government without consulting with the factions, and the PA issued a statement holding Hamas’ political miscalculations responsible for the plight of Palestinians in Gaza.

The entry of the alleged security personnel into Gaza is being seen by the factions as an attempt to eliminate Hamas and allow the PA to run the Strip without any coordination with the factions. They claim that the PA move was coordinated with “foreign powers”, including Israel.

“Whatever the details of the incident, the fact is that in Gaza the situation on the ground is deteriorating with every passing hour. Israeli attacks continue, there is little or no access to food and medicine, the Palestinian health system has collapsed, and Hamas leaders have yet to develop a vision of how to get out of the problem,” said the Egyptian source. And all the while the clock is ticking down to an Israeli ground offensive against Rafah “which the Americans have failed to convince [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to reconsider.”

The situation on the ground in Gaza was the subject of talks between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman on Monday. The talks followed a three-way ministerial meeting held in Cairo by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, and France. In addition to stressing the need to attend to the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and avert an offensive against Rafah, the border city where 1.5 million displaced Palestinians have sought shelter, the three ministers reiterated their rejection of attempts to forcibly evict Gazans from their land. The last point, says a Cairo-based European diplomat, was intended to warn Israel off any scheme to force Palestinians across the border with Egypt or prevent residents of north Gaza from returning home.

Egyptian sources say that in tandem with its engagement in the prisoner swap deal and push for a truce, Cairo is stepping up security measures on its eastern border. 

“We have no idea how things will unfold once the Rafah offensive starts, especially in the absence of an efficient civilian evacuation plan,” the Egyptian source said. He added that while Egypt is willing to extend all humanitarian help, any violation of its borders remains a red line. 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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