Hamas has given “initial positive confirmation” to a proposal for the cessation of fighting in Gaza and the release of hostages, Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesman asserted Thursday, but the Palestinian terror group swiftly denied doing so.
“That proposal has been approved by the Israeli side and now we have an initial positive confirmation from the Hamas’ side,” Majed al-Ansari told an audience at a Washington-based graduate school. “There is still a very tough road in front of us.”
“We are optimistic because both sides now agreed to the premise that would lead to a next pause. We’re hopeful that in the next couple of weeks, we’ll be able to share good news about that,” he added.
The comments at Johns Hopkins University briefly triggered some celebrations in Gaza, including festive gunfire, and a drop in the price of crude oil.
A Qatari official clarified to Reuters that there was “no deal yet” and that although “Hamas has received the proposal positively,” Qatar was “waiting for their response.”
But a Hamas official told Reuters a short while later that the terror group has “received the Paris truce proposal but we haven’t given response to any of parties, it is still being studied.”
“We cannot say the current stage of negotiation is zero and at the same time we cannot say that we have reached an agreement,” said Taher al-Nono, the media adviser of Qatar-based Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh.
Additionally, a senior Palestinian source told Lebanese news outlet Al-Mayadeen that Qatar jumped the gun in appearing to announce that Hamas had given initial approval to the ceasefire proposal.
The statement “was rushed and is incorrect,” the source said, claiming that Hamas’s leadership had yet to schedule meetings in Cairo to discuss the proposal with Egyptian mediators.
A similar quote was carried by AFP from a source close to Hamas: “There is no agreement on the framework of the agreement yet — the factions have important observations — and the Qatari statement is rushed and not true.”
In Al-Mayadeen, the source claimed the positive signals were a plot by the Israeli media to stir up public expectations about the nascent deal.
A delegation of Hamas leaders was in Cairo on Thursday for talks with Egyptian officials, including the head of Egyptian intelligence, Major General Abbas Kamel, on the possible deal, the outline of which was drawn up during a meeting in Paris on Sunday in the presence of Israeli and US officials, as well as Qatari and Egyptian negotiators.
According to some reports, the outline offers the possibility of a six-week pause in fighting in Gaza for the first time since late November, and the release of all 136 hostages still in Gaza, not all of whom are alive. Other reports, however, have said the framework provides for the release of only 35 hostages — women, the elderly and the sick — during a 35-day initial truce, with the potential for another week’s pause in fighting during which negotiations could be held on further releases. Still other reports have cited differing terms in the unconfirmed framework deal.
Hamas and other terror factions are holding onto 132 of the 253 hostages taken on October 7 during the unprecedented shock onslaught, following a weeklong November truce deal that saw the release of 105 civilians, mostly women and children.
The IDF has said 29 of the 132 are dead, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.
Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
Haniyeh was expected in Cairo for talks on the proposed truce. It was unclear Thursday if Haniyeh was already there, after an Egyptian official said the Doha-based leader led the Hamas delegation, which included senior members Mousa Abu Marzook and Khalil al-Hayya.
Israel’s war cabinet met earlier this week to discuss the proposal and was meeting again Thursday evening for more talks.
According to one report on the framework of the deal, all civilian hostages held by the Palestinian terror group in Gaza would be freed over the proposed six-week pause in fighting, in exchange for three times as many Palestinian security prisoners released from Israeli jails.
According to Kan news, however, the Qatari and Egyptian mediators are pushing for an extended pause in fighting that would last longer than two months, and which would not end before the last day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which is expected to run from around March 10 to April 9, 2024.
Key elements of the deal are said to have not been finalized, and a central sticking point is said to remain unresolved: While Hamas has said it will not sign onto any deal unless Israel commits to a withdrawal and permanent end to the war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to pull troops out until “total victory” has been achieved — which he defines as largely eradicating Hamas.
Channel 12’s Arab affairs analyst Ehud Yaari said Thursday that Hamas was still insisting on an end to the war and suggested a “10-year hudna” armistice. He also said Hamas has shown a willingness to hand over Gaza to civilian rule but would not agree to have its Gaza leaders go into exile.
Channel 12 also reported Thursday that Israel’s military leadership has conveyed that it could handle the protracted pauses built into the deal framework and could resume operations following the lulls in fighting.
A Palestinian official close to the talks said on Thursday that Hamas was unlikely to reject the proposal it received from mediators, but would not sign it without assurances that Israel has committed to ending the war.
“I expect that Hamas will not reject the paper, but it might not give a decisive agreement either,” the official told Reuters earlier, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Instead, I expect them to send a positive response, and reaffirm their demands: for the agreement to be signed, it must ensure Israel will commit to ending the war in Gaza and pull out from the enclave completely.”
Jerusalem is highly unlikely to agree to this.
According to reports from both Israeli and Palestinian sources, the envisioned hostage deal is designed to occur in three stages.
Citing a draft of the proposed deal read by “officials involved in the talks,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the US is “pushing for a [temporary] ceasefire deal that could stop the war in Gaza long enough to stall Israel’s military momentum and potentially set the stage for a more lasting truce.”
The three-part deal being considered by both parties, the Journal said, would start with a six-week truce in which Israel would be required to end all military operations, including drone surveillance. All civilian hostages would be freed by Hamas, and Gazan civilians would be able to move freely around the Strip. Humanitarian aid, which is currently all but unable to reach the northern part of the Strip, would be able to be distributed without limitations. An unspecified number of Palestinian security prisoners would go free.
During the second stage of the deal, female IDF soldiers would be released in return for increased humanitarian aid, ensuring that hospitals, water services and bakeries could resume operations as normal.
Hamas has demanded that Israel free 150 Palestinian security prisoners for each released female soldier hostage, the report stated, adding that this ratio is one of the issues under contention.
The third and final stage of the deal would see Hamas return all males it considers to be IDF soldiers — which includes all civilians whose age makes them eligible for reserve duty. Hamas would also return the bodies of dead hostages, of which there are at least 29, during this final stage.
Hamas would also require Israel to release an undetermined number of Palestinian security prisoners during this final stage, and would potentially require them to be high-risk Palestinians serving sentences for murderous attacks, including those captured inside Israel on October 7.
Along with Hamas’s demand that the truce lead to a permanent ceasefire, the issue of the Palestinian prisoners is expected to be one of the main areas of disagreement.
Netanyahu stressed on Wednesday that Israel will not agree to a deal “at any cost,” and that it will not end the war, pull the IDF out of the Gaza Strip or “release thousands of terrorists.”
In addition, the Journal reported, Hamas could refuse to release a small group of hostages and instead hold onto them as a future bargaining chip or as human shields.
Israel has vowed to end Hamas’s rule over Gaza following the terror group’s October 7 attack, in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists launched a shock assault on southern Israel in the early morning hours of the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. Terrorists overran more than 20 communities, killed 1,200 people, including 360 at an outdoor music festival, many of them slaughtered amid brutal atrocities, and seized 253 hostages.
An aerial campaign and subsequent ground operation has laid waste to much of the Palestinian enclave, displacing around 85 percent of its 2.3 million residents, but has so far failed to reach the terror group’s top leadership, believed to be hiding in a vast underground tunnel network.
The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said on Thursday that more than 27,000 people had been killed since the start of the war, though these figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of the terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 10,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.