Future of the ceasefire negotiations

Nouran Awadain, Wednesday 21 Feb 2024

Despite the rigidity of the Israeli government, there are still hopes of reaching a ceasefire in the war on Gaza before the beginning of Ramadan.

Future of the ceasefire negotiations

 

The trajectory of the negotiations regarding the implementation of a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of the detainees is seeing a growing divergence resulting from Israeli rigidity and Israel’s insistence on achieving complete victory over Hamas as the sole solution to the war.

This hardline stance coincides with escalating Israeli threats to carry out a military operation in Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip, even if an agreement is reached to release the detainees. For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, any failure to undertake such an operation would be tantamount to losing the war.

On 24 November last year, Egyptian, Qatari, and US mediation succeeded in reaching a temporary ceasefire agreement accompanied by a one-week humanitarian ceasefire. During this period, humanitarian, food, and medical aid was delivered to Gaza, and approximately 81 Israelis, some of whom held dual citizenship, were released in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinians from Israeli prisons, most of whom were women and minors and many had been detained without charges. A number of foreign nationals were also released as part of separate negotiations outside the ceasefire.

Negotiations on implementing a new ceasefire have continued since then, with mediators seeking to reconcile proposals from Israel and Hamas to bridge the gap between them and reach a new agreement securing the release of over 100 Israeli detainees in Gaza in exchange for numerous Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons and the achievement of a humanitarian ceasefire.

A security meeting was held in Cairo on 13 February attended by head of Egyptian IntelligenceAbbas Kamel, Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, CIA Director William Burns, Mossad Chief David Barnea, Shin Bet Chief Ronen Bar, and Political Adviser to the Israeli Prime MinisterOfir Falk.

The Cairo meeting followed discussions during previous rounds of talks held in Paris on 28 January, when the parties reached a “general framework for a comprehensive agreement between the parties” consisting of three stages.

The first stage, lasting 45 days, aims to release all the Israeli detainees, including women, children (under 19 years old), the elderly, and the sick, in exchange for a specified number of Palestinian prisoners, along with intensifying humanitarian aid, a temporary halt to military operations, and the relocation of Israeli forces out of densely populated areas of Gaza.

The second stage aims to release all male civilian and military detainees in exchange for a specified number of Palestinian prisoners, with humanitarian measures continuing from the first stage. The third stage aims to exchange the bodies and the remains of the deceased from both sides after their identification, while continuing the humanitarian measures agreed upon during the first two stages and concluding talks aimed at restoring calm and halting hostilities in the war.

However, statements made following the Cairo meeting indicate ongoing disagreement between Israel and Hamas regarding the cessation of hostilities and the end of the war. Israeli officials continue to reject the idea of a permanent ceasefire and are only willing to accept a ceasefire lasting for a few weeks that can be extended as circumstances evolve, while keeping forces on the ground until the final stage of the operation.

Meanwhile, Hamas demands the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces and the return of displaced Gaza residents to their homes. Another point of contention is the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released for each detainee in Gaza, with Israel seeking to reduce the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released in any hostage deal.

Due to the ongoing disagreement between the two sides, Hamas has threatened to suspend its participation in the negotiations unless urgent aid is delivered to northern Gaza. It is insisting on nothing less than a complete cessation of hostilities, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the lifting of the “unjust siege,” and the release of Palestinian prisoners serving long sentences in Israeli prisons.

The inflexibility demonstrated by the Israeli prime minister appears to be the main obstacle to reaching an agreement, as evidenced by several indicators. Firstly, there is his directive for the negotiating team to only listen to the talks in Cairo without presenting new ideas or providing an official response to the Hamas demands. To ensure compliance with these directives, Netanyahu decided to send his adviser, Ofir Falk, to participate in the talks.

Secondly, there is Netanyahu’s decision to refuse the return of the Israeli negotiators to Cairo for follow-up talks, despite the recommendation of the Shin Bet chief that re-sending the negotiators would help to soften Hamas’ stance, especially regarding reducing the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released by Israel.

Thirdly, there is Netanyahu’s unilateral decision-making without consulting the members of the Israeli Security Cabinet, prompting two ministers in the government, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, to threaten to dissolve it if Netanyahu continues to make unilateral decisions regarding efforts to reach a ceasefire and release the detainees.

The reasons for the inflexibility displayed by the Israeli prime minister are attributed to his desire to avoid jeopardising his alliance with the far-right in Israel, ensuring the continuity of his government, and preventing its collapse or early elections that could end his political career, especially in the light of his declining popularity, as indicated by the opinion polls and renewed protests calling for early elections.

Moreover, the Israeli rigidity also aims to thwart Western, and particularly US, pressure for the establishment of a Palestinian state as a pathway to ending the war, rather than viewing it as the final step in the negotiation process. During his participation in the Munich Security Conference last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasised the urgent need to advance the establishment of a Palestinian state, which was met with Israeli rejection, insisting that such an arrangement can only be reached through direct negotiations between the two parties without preconditions.

However, despite the apparent rigidity, there are still hopes of reaching an agreement, with Israeli media reports suggesting the possibility of one before the beginning of Ramadan in March. This is especially the case given the ongoing international pressure for a cessation of the war and internal pressures in Israel resulting from continued protests demanding the release of the Hamas detainees and protests calling for early elections.

However, Netanyahu’s decision to reach an agreement will be contingent on his personal and domestic political situation and especially on his continuation as prime minister of Israel.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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