Despite the scepticism that has prevailed over the past few days over the fate of a deal whereby both Hamas and Israel would release an agreed list of hostages and prisoners and accept a ceasefire, most probably on a preliminary basis, informed Egyptian and European sources said that the deal has not been called off.
“It is never easy to work on a prisoner-swap deal in normal times, and these are not normal times and things are quite complicated,” said an informed Egyptian source.
According to the source, “some of the elements of the deal” have been agreed, including Israel’s acceptance to allow some fuel into Gaza, the agreement of Hamas to put together lists of all the civilian hostages captured by the movement, and the Israeli facilitation of the entry of equipment for a Jordanian field hospital and an Egyptian medical tent city, he said.
Israel has also accepted to allow more wounded Palestinians to leave Gaza for treatment, either in Egypt or elsewhere, and to allow more convoys to enter the Gaza Strip.
“All these things are included in the wider package, which is not just about getting out the hostages and the prisoners, but is also about a preliminary form of de-escalation,” the source said.
There are different narratives about what most sources qualify as the “slight delay” in the execution of the deal, however.
According to one narrative, the delay has come as Hamas leaders have been angered by some of the Arab mediators over their rejection of some of demands made by Hamas on the need to accommodate the humanitarian demands of Gaza without reference to coordination with Israel.
Another narrative blames the delay on Israel’s violation of the commitment it made to refrain from attacking hospitals. The brutal attack on the Al-Shifa Hospital, the most important medical facility in Gaza, and the subsequent attacks on two UN Relief Agency UNRWA schools, has made it impossible for Hamas leaders to continue the indirect negotiations conducted through the three main players of the US, Qatar and Egypt.
In the words of one well-informed European source, once Israel started to attack the Al-Shifa Hospital last week, it became clear that the fate of the prisoner deal was at risk. The US had had no luck in trying to convince the Israelis to spare the hospital and other medical and UN facilities in Gaza, he said.
“The full and unconditional support that the Biden Administration has shown towards Israel since the beginning of the war has allowed Israel to be very stubborn in its positions,” he added.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Netanyahu is acting as if he has a golden opportunity to end what he calls the ‘Gaza nightmare’,” the source said, adding that Netanyahu is obsessed with plans to empty the north of Gaza, “at any humanitarian price for the Palestinians” and perhaps also at some real risk for Israeli troops and the safety of the Israeli civilians taken hostage by Hamas on 7 October.
This, the source said, along with the squabbles within the Israeli War Cabinet and the pressure put on it by the families of the hostages have been contributing to erratic decision-making on how to manage the deal.
According to the European source, if Netanyahu had not attacked the Al-Shifa Hospital and spared the other medical facilities, including the Indonesian Hospital attacked this week, then the deal could have been executed.
The Egyptian source said that as part of moving towards the completion of the deal, both Hamas and Israel are required to show signs of de-escalation. Hamas is supposed to reduce the volume and frequency of its rocket attacks on Israel, and Israel is supposed to reduce the intensity of its strikes on Gaza, especially the middle and south of the Strip.
Hamas, he said, has exercised restraint in its rocket attacks. However, Israel has moved to attack hospitals, shelters, and schools and to push its tanks further into the heart of Gaza. “It is impossible for Hamas to agree to a deal under these conditions. Israel will have to slow down if it wishes to see the deal executed,” he said.
Egypt has been pressing the Americans in direct and un-announced talks to “put some serious pressure on Israel.” It has also been putting pressure on Hamas and has been asking Qatar, which is playing host to Hamas political leaders in exile, to do the same.
“I think that we have reached tentative agreements on many things, especially the security of the tents, make-shift medical facilities, and field hospitals that will be put up in the south of Gaza,” the Egyptian source said. He added that the Americans have been telling both the Egyptians and the Qataris that Washington has received assurances from Netanyahu on this.
Earlier in the week, US President Joe Biden said he was hoping for a deal in a few days’ time. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also appealed for a humanitarian ceasefire. Guterres spoke on Monday, a few days after the UN Security Council managed to adopt a resolution that allows food and other pressing relief material to enter Gaza.
Both Egyptian and European sources say that it is a matter of days for a deal to be agreed, unless Netanyahu decides to take things further on the ground or the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah enters the war.
This week, Chief of the Hamas Political Bureau Ismail Haniyeh met with Mirjana Spoljaric, chief of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in Qatar. The ICRC is not a negotiating body, but it facilitates the execution of deals related to a prisoner’s swap.
According to informed European sources, the meeting is an indication that a deal is in the offing.
According to Egyptian sources, the meeting could mean that a deal is on track but not necessarily in the offing. They said that it could be some days before a brief ceasefire of 72 hours goes into effect.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly