Israel-Hamas ceasefire talks expected to restart in Qatar Sunday

AP , Saturday 16 Mar 2024

Stalled talks aimed at securing a cease-fire in the Israeli war on Gaza are expected to restart in earnest in Qatar as soon as Sunday, according to Egyptian officials.

Palestinians perform the first Friday noon prayer of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan over the ruins of of Al-Farouq Mosque. Photo: AP


The talks would mark the first time both Israeli officials and Hamas leaders joined the indirect negotiations since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

International mediators had hoped to secure a six-week truce before Ramadan started earlier this week but Hamas refused any deal that wouldn’t lead to a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, a demand Israel rejected.

In recent days, however, both sides have made moves to get the talks, which never fully broke off, back on track.

Hamas gave mediators a new proposal for a three-stage plan that would end the fighting, according to two Egyptian officials, one who is involved in the talks and a second who was briefed on them.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal the contents of the sensitive discussions.

The first stage would be a six-week ceasefire that would include the release of 35 captives — women, those who are ill, and older people — being held by militants in Gaza in exchange for 350 Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel.

Hamas would also release at least five female soldiers in exchange for 50 prisoners, including some serving long sentences on terror charges, for each soldier.

Israeli forces would withdraw from two main roads in Gaza, let displaced Palestinians return to north Gaza, which has been devastated by the fighting, and allow the free flow of aid to the area, the officials said.

Nearly one in three children under 2 years old in the isolated north are suffering acute malnutrition, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF reported Friday.

In the second phase, the two sides would declare a permanent ceasefire and Hamas would free the remaining Israeli soldiers held captive in exchange for more prisoners, the officials said.

In the third phase, Hamas would hand over the bodies it’s holding in exchange for Israel lifting the blockade of Gaza and allowing reconstruction to start, the officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the proposal “unrealistic.” However, he agreed to send Israeli negotiators to Qatar for more talks.

Those talks were expected to resume Sunday afternoon, though they could get pushed to Monday, the Egyptian officials said.

Netanyahu’s government has rejected calls for a permanent ceasefire, insisting it must first fulfil its stated goal of “annihilating Hamas.”

Netanyahu’s office also said Friday he approved military plans to attack Rafah, the southernmost town in Gaza where some 1.4 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

The United States and other countries have warned such an operation could be disastrous, but Israel says it plans to push ahead to destroy Hamas battalions stationed there.

Many Palestinians fled to Rafah when Israel began attacking Gaza on 7 October.

Netanyahu's office said the Rafah operation would involve the evacuation of the civilian population, but did not give details or a timetable. The military said Wednesday it planned to direct civilians to “humanitarian islands” in central Gaza.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday: “We have to see a clear and implementable plan” to safeguard innocent people in Rafah from an Israeli incursion.

“We have not seen such a plan,” he said.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed over 31,000 Palestinians and driven most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people from their homes. A quarter of Gaza’s population is starving, according to the United Nations.

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