Egypt, Qatar, US still adjudicating Hamas response

Hamas issues response to Israeli hostage deal proposal, saying it made ‘amendments’

Israel says terror group made drastic changes that amount to a rejection of its offer; official from mediating country says Hamas proposed new timeline for ceasefire, IDF withdrawal

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Families and supporters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza hold banners and flags during a protest calling for their return, outside meetings of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Families and supporters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza hold banners and flags during a protest calling for their return, outside meetings of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv, Israel, June 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Hamas on Tuesday submitted its formal response to the hostage release-ceasefire proposal conveyed by Israel 12 days earlier, with the terror group declaring that it made “amendments” to the offer, while Israel asserted that the response amounted to a rejection of its proposal.

The Hamas response was submitted to Qatar and Egypt, which passed it along to the third mediator, the United States. All three countries issued statements saying they were reviewing the proposal without characterizing it further.

Egypt and Qatar’s joint statement pledged to continue their mediation efforts until a deal is released, adding that they would “coordinate with the parties regarding next steps.”

The response from Hamas wasn’t particularly surprising, given that Arab officials told The Times of Israel over the past week that the terror group would avoid outright rejecting the Israeli proposal — amid mounting global support for a deal — and instead seek revisions to the offer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office did not release an on-record reply, but a statement was issued by an anonymous Israeli official who said Hamas’s response had “changed all of the main and most meaningful parameters,” amounting to a rejection of the proposal on the table.

The more critical reactions, though, will likely come from the mediators — and especially the United States — once they finish reviewing the proposal and adjudicating the extent of Hamas’s amendments.

Palestinians help a wounded man after Israeli strikes in Nuseirat refugee camp, Gaza Strip, on June 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi, File)

If the changes are deemed within reason, the mediators will likely encourage the parties to try and meet halfway in a process that will likely take at least another week, given the time it has taken for Hamas officials abroad to deliver messages to the decision-making leadership in tunnels deep below Gaza.

Hamas’s response was first announced in a joint statement it issued along with the smaller Gaza terror group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. They both declared their readiness to negotiate in good faith on an agreement that would bring about a complete end to the war.

The response “opens up a wide pathway” to reach an agreement, Izzat al-Rishq, a member of Hamas’ political bureau, said in a statement.

“We reiterated our previous stance. I believe there are no big gaps. The ball is now in Israel’s court,” said a Hamas official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Hamas spokesman Jihad Taha said the response included “amendments that confirm the ceasefire, withdrawal, reconstruction and [hostage] exchange.”

The amendments included an updated timeline for the permanent ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza — including from Rafah and the Philadelphi corridor along the Egypt-Gaza border — according to an official from one of the mediating countries who requested anonymity.

Mourners attend the funeral of Israeli soldier Sergeant Almog Shalom, who was killed in battle in the Gaza Strip, during his funeral at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem, Tuesday, June 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

What we know about the Israeli proposal

Israel submitted its latest hostage deal proposal late last month, as some in Jerusalem began framing it as the last opportunity to secure a deal after repeated rounds of failed negotiations since the last deal was reached in November. That deal saw a week-long truce and the release of 105 of the 251 hostages abducted during Hamas’s October 7 onslaught. Some 1,200 people were massacred in the Hamas-led invasion and slaughter in southern Israel.

The months since have seen a drip of reports on hostages killed in captivity, with Israel confirming that roughly one-third of the remaining 120 abductees are no longer alive.

Seeking to avoid the fate of previous rounds of indirect talks, US President Joe Biden changed his strategy, giving a speech on May 31 in which he revealed key components of the latest Israeli proposal and called on Hamas to accept it.

The 12 days since the speech have seen US officials repeatedly cast Hamas as the party preventing a ceasefire, noting that the Israeli offer was nearly identical to the one the terror group presented in the previous round and arguing that Hamas had no reason not to accept it if it truly cared about the interests of Palestinians.

The Biden speech was also aimed at forcing Netanyahu to stand behind the proposal submitted by his negotiating team days earlier. The premier authorized the offer but had avoided going public with its exact details, fearing backlash from his far-right coalition partners. Those fears were realized, as National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich subsequently threatened to topple the government if Netanyahu moved forward with the deal.

But Netanyahu sought to wiggle his way out of the predicament, insisting that the Israeli proposal would allow for it to complete its war aim of dismantling Hamas’s military and governing capabilities.

Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip are brought to al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al Balah on Sunday, June 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Saher Alghorra)

On Monday, though, Channel 12 published what it said was the Israeli proposal, which apparently includes an Israeli commitment to end the war even before all the hostages are released while also allowing Hamas to remain a governing force in Gaza. Netanyahu’s office branded the story “a total lie.”

The portions of the Israeli offer revealed by Biden in his May 31 speech envision a three-phased plan, starting with a six-week phase one truce during which Hamas would release the remaining living female, elderly and sick hostages.

In exchange, Israel would release hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners; withdraw the IDF from Gaza population centers; allow the unrestricted return of Palestinians to all areas of the Strip; and facilitate the daily entry of 600 trucks of humanitarian aid into the enclave.

The main point of contention in previous rounds has been Israel’s insistence on being able to resume the fighting after hostages are released and Hamas’s refusal to free those it abducted unless Israel commits up front to a permanent ceasefire.

In an attempt to bridge this divide, Clause 14 of the Israeli proposal states that during the first phase, the parties would launch talks on the terms of phase two — a permanent ceasefire — that they would aim to conclude by the end of the fifth week of the initial truce.

If the sides don’t succeed in reaching an agreement within that allotted time, the phase one ceasefire can be extended indefinitely, so long as the talks on the terms of phase two continue.

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)

However, if Hamas is found to violate its commitments under the deal, Israel can resume fighting.

If agreements are reached in the phase one talks, a six-week phase two truce can commence, during which Hamas would release the remaining living Israeli hostages, including young men and male soldiers.

In exchange, Israel would release an agreed-upon number of Palestinian security prisoners — likely an even higher number than those released in phase one, including some of the most notorious terror convicts — in addition to the IDF withdrawing completely from Gaza.

As revealed on Monday by Channel 12, the critical Clause 15 states that during phase two, the sides would “announce restoration of a sustainable calm (cessation of military hostilities permanently) and its commencement prior to the exchange of hostages and prisoners.”

During the six-week phase three, Hamas would release the remaining bodies of hostages it is still holding while Israel would allow the commencement of an internationally backed Gaza reconstruction plan.

The US has insisted that the hostage deal proposal will help ensure Hamas is removed from power but has offered limited details on how that comes about if the terror group is the one making the agreement with Israel.

Palestinians inspect the damage and debris a day after an operation by the Israeli special forces in the Nuseirat camp, in the central Gaza Strip on June 9, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas (Eyad BABA / AFP)

US officials speaking to The Times of Israel last month sought to differentiate between Israel’s goal of dismantling Hamas and what it views as a more realistic aim of dismantling the “threat of Hamas.”

Biden argued that Israel has already done the latter and that Hamas is no longer able to carry out another October 7 attack.

“Indefinite war in pursuit of an unidentified notion of ‘total victory’ will only bog down Israel in Gaza, draining military, economic and human resources and further Israel’s isolation in the world,” Biden said in his speech, making a direct attack on Netanyahu, who has repeatedly vowed to achieve “total victory” in Gaza.

US officials have asserted that while the hostage deal it is advancing may allow Hamas to limp on in some form, the broader diplomatic initiative Washington is pushing would see the terror group marginalized in Gaza by alternative forces backed by America’s Arab allies.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, June 10, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu has indicated that he opposes this approach, and while Arab officials insist Hamas will be willing to step away from the management of Gaza after the war, the terror group has yet to publicly express such a desire.

In the meantime, the US is aiming to first convince the sides to agree to begin implementing phase one of the deal, hoping that will provide enough momentum for the truce to be turned into a permanent ceasefire.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 37,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far. The toll — which has not been verified and does not differentiate between civilians and combatants — includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

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