'There's no time to lose,' countries tell terror group

As world urges Hamas to accept latest Gaza proposal, group signals likely rejection

Qatar says Hamas has yet to formally issue its response to Israeli offer, but terror leaders continue to insist any ceasefire must guarantee end to war;

Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, greets his supporters during a meeting with leaders of Palestinian factions at his office in Gaza City, April 13, 2022. (AP Photo/ Adel Hana/ File)
Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, greets his supporters during a meeting with leaders of Palestinian factions at his office in Gaza City, April 13, 2022. (AP Photo/ Adel Hana/ File)

Signs that Hamas was set to reject Israel’s latest proposal for a hostage release and Gaza truce deal mounted Thursday, as officials in the terror group reiterated their insistence that any agreement must guarantee an end to the war, a demand Israel has repeatedly ruled out.

Talks involving Qatari, Egyptian and US mediators aimed at reaching a ceasefire were still underway on Thursday but had shown no sign of a breakthrough, two Egyptian security sources said.

Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari said that Hamas had not yet handed mediators its response, adding that Qatari, Egyptian and the US mediators were still making efforts.

In the Wall Street Journal, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar was quoted telling Arab mediators that the group would not budge from its demand for a permanent ceasefire, and would not agree to disarm as part of any deal.

“Hamas will not surrender its guns or sign a proposal that asks for that,” Sinwar said.

The talks began on Wednesday, when CIA director William Burns met senior officials from Qatar and Egypt in Doha to discuss a proposal that US President Joe Biden publicly endorsed last week. Biden described the three-phase plan as an Israeli initiative.

The talks in Qatar were aimed at finding a formula that could reassure Hamas over its demand for guarantees that the deal would deliver a complete cessation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip and a full Israeli withdrawal from the territory, the Egyptian sources said.

Israel has said it will refuse to agree to such guarantees.

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters on Thursday that while the group welcomed what he called “Biden’s ideas,” a US draft resolution at the UN Security Council based on the latest proposal was related to an Israeli ceasefire offer Hamas had seen and had rejected.

“The (US) document… has no mention of ending the aggression or the withdrawal,” he said.

“The Israeli documents speak of open-ended negotiation with no deadline, and it speaks of a stage during which the occupation regains its hostages and resumes the war. We had told the mediators that such a paper wasn’t acceptable to us,” said Abu Zuhri.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

He said Hamas was committed to its May 5 proposal under which the terror group would retain control of the Strip and eventually release a small number of hostages in exchange for hundreds of imprisoned terrorists — a plan swiftly rejected by Israel.

On Wednesday Hamas distributed a document to other Palestinian groups rejecting Israel’s latest proposal, the Saudi Asharq News outlet reported (Arabic), after viewing a copy of the memorandum from the Gaza-based terror group.

According to Hamas, the Israeli offer “fundamentally differs” from the proposal announced by Biden on Friday.

The document says that Israel’s offer “does not guarantee a permanent ceasefire,” and allows Israel to recover “the prisoners that interest it, then it resumes the war of extermination against our people.”

Seeking to break a prolonged deadlock in negotiations, Biden went public last week with some of the details of the latest Israeli proposal, a move that took Israel largely by surprise.

According to Asharq, Hamas said in the memorandum that it initially welcomed Biden’s proposal “because it provides the necessary foundations to reach an agreement that achieves a permanent ceasefire, the withdrawal of the occupation army from the Gaza Strip, the flow of large amounts of aid, the return of the displaced, reconstruction, and the exchange of prisoners.”

The terror group added that it was ready to accept any agreement that guarantees those demands, and would not accept any deal that does not “explicitly stipulate a permanent ceasefire.”

It also insisted that Biden ensure that Israel accepts the terms laid out in his White House speech.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Israel-Hamas war, from the State Dining Room of the White House, May 31, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

At the same time, a senior Hamas official based in Beirut claimed Thursday that the terror group had never received any actual proposal based on Biden’s speech.

“There is no proposal — they are just words said by Biden in a speech,” Osama Hamdan told AFP.

“So far, the Americans have not presented anything documented or written that commits them to what Biden said in his speech,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that he will not accept any hostage deal that prevents Israel from completing its war aim of eliminating Hamas, which orchestrated the October 7 onslaught in southern Israel that killed some 1,200 people and saw 251 abducted and taken into Gaza.

His war cabinet has signed off on a hostage deal proposal that would bring about an end to the war if fully implemented, though the premier contends in no uncertain terms that it would allow Israel to fulfill its war aims — including toppling Hamas — before that.

Netanyahu canceled meetings of the war cabinet and national security cabinet scheduled for Thursday evening, an official in The Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel, without offering an explanation.

On Wednesday, Hamas sources told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat that “Israel is manipulating.”

“[They] want a temporary truce, then the war will resume… They use ambiguous texts that are open to interpretation and interpretation.”

IDF troops operate in southern Gaza’s Rafah, in a handout photo published May 31, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Thursday, the leaders of countries with citizens held in Gaza called on Hamas to agree to the proposal announced by Biden.

“There is no time to lose,” the world leaders said in a statement. “We call on Hamas to close this agreement, that Israel is ready to move forward with, and begin the process of releasing our citizens.”

“It is time for the war to end and this deal is the necessary starting point,” said the missive, signed by the leaders of the United States, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that negotiations with Hamas will “only be conducted under fire.”

“We are in a process where we will continue to wear down the enemy,” he asserted.

Meanwhile, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a Wednesday statement that the terror group would deal “seriously and positively” with any ceasefire agreement that is based on a total halt of war and the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Strip.

Ismail Haniyeh, the Doha-based political bureau chief of Hamas, speaks to the press after a meeting with the Iranian foreign minister in Tehran on March 26, 2024. (AFP)

The US has placed the ball in Hamas’s court, by repeatedly highlighting that the Israeli offer is nearly identical to the last proposal made by the terror group.

The Israeli negotiating team led by Mossad chief David Barnea — which is given its mandate by Netanyahu but has repeatedly sought to widen its room for maneuver in order to secure a deal — added a new clause to its latest proposal that aims to overcome the deadlock.

The offer envisions a six-week truce in its first phase during which the remaining living female, elderly and sick hostages will be released. Also during this first phase, the parties are to hold talks on a permanent ceasefire. The added clause specifies that the phase one ceasefire can extend beyond the initially allotted six weeks if the negotiations for a permanent ceasefire are still taking place in good faith.

The clause was kept vague in a manner that mediators hoped would satisfy both sides enough to at least get them to agree to phase one of the deal.

CIA chief William Burns, Egyptian intel chief Abbas Kamel, Mossad chief David Barnea and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani. (Collage; AP/AFP)

The US has thrown its weight behind this Israeli proposal, dispatching CIA chief Burns and White House Middle East czar Brett McGurk to the region to try and see the deal through.

Burns met Wednesday with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel in Doha. The latter pair of mediators subsequently met with a Hamas delegation to further lean on the terror group to accept the Israeli proposal, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

Meanwhile, McGurk was in Cairo for additional meetings with Egyptian officials with the same goal on the agenda. Qatar and Egypt have been charged with bringing Hamas to the negotiating table, with Doha able to influence Hamas’s foreign leaders, whom it hosts, while Egypt enjoys sway with Hamas’s Gaza leadership due to their shared border.

The official said the mediators expect that Hamas will nominally accept the Israeli proposal while setting out a series of reservations that will further drag out the talks.

Israel’s war cabinet met on Wednesday night and discussed the deal further, but decided to hold off on sending its negotiating team to Doha until Hamas provides its response to the proposal, an Israeli official said.

It is believed that 120 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 41 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Emmanuel Fabian and Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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