In parallel to its involvement in an expanding scheme to manage the humanitarian situation in the south of the Gaza Strip, Cairo this week opted to scale up indirect talks between Hamas and Israel in a bid to reach a deal that will allow for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, some for over 20 years, and civilian Israelis taken hostage by Hamas during its attack on the south of Israel on 7 October.
“This is a different negotiations process from the one we were working on prior to 7 October to secure the release of Hamas and other prisoners from Israeli jails in return for the release of two Israeli soldiers and the handover of the remains of two others,” said a source with direct access to the negotiations.
He added that “what is being discussed has nothing to do with the soldiers or with top Hamas leaders in Israeli jails. We are just trying to identify some Hamas members along with other prisoners in Israeli jails and to secure the safe release of Israelis taken hostage by Hamas last month.”
He said that both sides “seem to be committed to the negotiations process. I think they both wish to see a deal before the end of this month or sometime in early December.” However, he added that “as we have seen before in swap deals, at times we come close and then one side or the other decides to abort the deal.”
The difference this time, the same source said, is that “each side has an interest to go for a deal.” For Hamas, it would be a political victory in the midst of “a very confused situation on the ground in Gaza as a result of an attack that was executed without sufficient assessment of the possible repercussions, in terms of both the Israeli side and the international reaction,” he said.
It would also be a political victory for Israel, “especially for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose military operation in Gaza seems to be unable to move as fast as promised.”
The success of the swap deal that “Egypt is directly working on with the support of regional and international players, especially the US and Qatar, which is currently hosting the political leaders of Hamas,” is not certain, the source said, owing to factors including “the fact that [Israeli Defence Minister Yaov] Gallant is feeling confident that despite the delays and hiccups he is able to deliver his objectives.”
Another factor “is the independence of the decision-making process of Hamas leaders on the ground from the Qatar-based old guard of Hamas leaders.”
Both the current and former chairs of the Hamas Political Bureau, Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal, have been in Cairo for the negotiations. Top Israeli Mossad negotiators have also been in the city for the same purpose. The issue was also at the top of the agenda in the talks between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Qatari Emir Tamim Al-Thani.
“We are putting a lot of effort into this because we are aware of the risks of failure, which could bring a much more aggressive attack on Gaza. Success, on the other hand, would secure a better chance for relief work to help the population of Gaza who have been coming under attack for six weeks now with no clear end in sight,” the source said.
“In the wider frame of the deal” that Egypt is negotiating, “there is the possibility of making an agreement with Israel to improve the conditions of the humanitarian pause that the Israeli prime minister has promised to the Americans,” he said.
It took five weeks of destruction of the entire northern part of the Gaza Strip and protest marches in many Western capitals before the US was able to get Israel to agree to what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as “a humanitarian pause” in its bombing of Gaza.
The US is still opposed to a ceasefire on the grounds that this will benefit Hamas.
It is not clear how the pause or pauses will work. “We know that it includes a few hours of no assaults on some parts of southern Gaza and some roads connecting the north to the south, in order to allow for the entry of relief material and the exit of Palestinians from the north to the south,” said an Egyptian humanitarian source.
He said that while the agreement on the humanitarian pauses had helped with the entry of relief convoys made up of “material put together by the Egyptian government and other material brought over to Arish from other countries,” it is “still falling far short of what Gaza needs in terms of immediate relief.”
“We are talking about an already overpopulated and impoverished place that has been under an aggressive blockade for 17 years and that has seen several other Israeli wars on it,” he said. “We are talking about over 11,000 people killed by Israeli attacks or as a result of Israel denying access to the entry of medical and relief material. Now there are the direct Israeli attacks on hospitals, including those that treat newborns and children.”
“A couple of hours a day of a pause or 100 trucks a day will do very little to help” in this situation, he said. “We need a few days of a total ceasefire and free access to the entry of relief material and medical equipment because Gaza is not just short on medicines but also on essential medical equipment as well.”
“Of course, it is fuel that is really running out,” he added. Above all, he stressed, “we need to see an immediate end to the Israeli attacks on hospitals, including on intensive care units (ICUs).”
At the beginning of week six of its war on Gaza, Israel has attacked and surrounded four key hospitals in Gaza, including Al-Shifa, Gaza’s most important and best-equipped hospital, and Al-Rantissi, an oncological facility dedicated to the treatment of children.
The attacks have caused the death of newborn children in incubators and patients in ICUs. Talking on poor Internet connections from Gaza, foreign volunteer doctors working in Gaza were in tears, saying that “children are just dying for no reason.”
“We cannot help. We are surrounded with dead bodies and with patients who are going to die,” they said.
This week, Palestinian officials said that Gaza’s two largest hospitals, Al-Shifa and Al-Quds, are no longer functioning due to lack of fuel and electricity. Two foreign doctors who spoke from Al-Shifa said that there are now two ways to look at Gaza: either as “a morgue” or “as a graveyard”.
On Tuesday, doctors at the Al-Shifa Hospital said they had opted for the mass burial of patients and civilians who were finding refuge in the hospital surroundings and who had died over the past few days when Israel surrounded and attacked them.
According to UN agencies operating in Gaza, it is not just Palestinians who are dying, but relief and international humanitarian workers as well. While the death toll of Palestinians has passed over 11,000, over 100 UN staff members have also been announced as having been killed in Gaza.
A UN source who spoke on condition of anonymity said the figure is probably higher because there are many staff who cannot be reached and many dead bodies under the rubble of buildings hit in Gaza.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly