Hamas sends delegation to Cairo, calls for deal ‘that fulfills Palestinians’ demands’

Despite mediators’ optimism a hostages-for-truce agreement can be reached, official tells ToI that Israel yet to hear terror group willing to retreat from maximalist demands

Hostages' families and their supporters calling for an immediate deal to release their loved ones block Begin Street in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2024. (Yael Gadot/Pro-Democracy Movement)
Hostages' families and their supporters calling for an immediate deal to release their loved ones block Begin Street in Tel Aviv, May 2, 2024. (Yael Gadot/Pro-Democracy Movement)

Hamas said on Friday it was sending a delegation to Cairo to discuss a hostages-for-truce deal with Israel, hours after US CIA Director William Burns arrived in the Egyptian capital, according to Egyptian sources.

Egypt, along with Qatar and the United States, has been leading efforts to mediate between Israel and Hamas and broker a deal for a ceasefire in the Gaza war that began with the terror group’s devastating October 7 attack.

The Hamas and CIA officials will meet Egyptian mediators on Saturday, an Egyptian security source said, though it was unclear whether they would meet separately or together.

Hamas said its delegates were traveling to Cairo in a “positive spirit” after studying the latest proposal for a truce agreement.

“We are determined to secure an agreement in a way that fulfills Palestinians’ demands,” the Palestinian terror group said in a statement.

A US official said the United States believed there had been some progress in talks but was still waiting to hear more.

The CIA declined to comment, reflecting its policy of not disclosing the director’s travel.

Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to examine worldwide threats on Capitol Hill in March 8, 2023. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP)

Talks have continued for months without a decisive breakthrough. Israel has said it is determined to eliminate Hamas, while Hamas says it wants a permanent ceasefire and a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The Biden administration has said Hamas is the only party standing in the way of a deal.

Citing a Palestinian source, the Kan public broadcaster reported the delegation will not present Hamas’s response to the latest proposal for an agreement. According to the source, the delegation was traveling to the Egyptian capital for further negotiations and will reiterate Hamas’s key conditions for an agreement, chiefly an Israeli commitment to end the war sparked by the October 7 onslaught.

The report said the delegation will be led by senior Hamas figure Khalil al-Hayya and also include Zaher Jabarin and Ghazi Hamad.

Khalil al-Hayya speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in Istanbul, Turkey, April 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

As Hamas confirmed the delegation would travel to Cairo, a senior Israeli official lowered expectations that a deal was imminent.

“Even though the mediators are speaking optimistically, Israel has yet to hear that Hamas has agreed to retreat from its maximalist positions,” the senior official told The Times of Israel.

However, the Axios news site quoted senior Israeli officials who said they saw “early indications” that Hamas could agree to the first stage of the Egyptian-crafted, Israeli-backed proposal for a deal — involving the release of women, children, the elderly and the sick — even without an Israeli commitment to end the war, but with fewer hostages to be freed in exchange for more Palestinian security prisoners.

If so, the Israeli officials expect Hamas to set stricter requirements that could lower the number of hostages it will agree to release on so-called “humanitarian” grounds, and increase the number of Palestinian security prisoners to be freed in return, the news site said.

Israel is seeking the release of 33 female, elderly and sick hostages during the six-week first stage of the truce, but Hamas may only agree to release 20 hostages in those categories, according to the report.

Demonstrators protest calling for the release of the hostages in Tel Aviv on May 2, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A separate report by The Wall Street Journal said Israel gave Hamas one week to agree to the hostage deal on the table, or it will launch its long-pledged offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah.

The report did not specify when the ultimatum was given, but cited Egyptian officials speaking Friday, meaning Hamas would have until next Friday to agree to the deal.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been threatening to enter Rafah for months, claiming repeatedly during that period that an invasion was imminent.

The Journal report said Hamas’s political leadership abroad was handed the latest proposal green-lit by Israel last weekend and was expected to discuss it further in Cairo. However, the terror group’s preeminent leaders in Gaza — namely Yahya Sinwar — have yet to respond to the proposal, and it is unclear whether they’ve even seen it, as they hide in tunnels underneath Gaza.

Hamas’s leadership abroad has offered mixed signals regarding the latest offer, and unnamed Egyptian officials were quoted saying that the terror group was chafing at what it characterized as the proposal’s vague details regarding the length of the truce. Hamas wants a permanent ceasefire bolstered by US guarantees that Israel will respect its terms and fears the current proposal will allow Israel to resume fighting within a short period of time.

The US newspaper said the offer would include a first phase lasting up to 40 days in which up to 33 Israeli hostages would be released. Around this time, the sides would begin negotiations for a more permanent ceasefire. The second phase would last for at least six weeks and see the sides agree to a larger hostage release and commit to a further pause in fighting that could last up to a year.

The report said Hamas and Israel also remained at odds on the return of Palestinians to northern Gaza, though the US has said Israel has agreed to the unrestricted return of Gaza civilians to areas cleared by the IDF. As for swapping Israeli hostages for Palestinian security prisoners, the sides have been largely in line with one another.

The Journal’s report on the terms of the Egyptian-crafted offer was similar to those specified in a detailed Lebanese newspaper report on Wednesday. No official text of the proposal has been published.

The Journal said Hamas would likely respond to the latest proposal with an updated offer of its own, rather than rejecting it outright.

An Israeli soldier on top of a tank on the border with the Gaza Strip on March 17, 2024. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

An Arab alliance for post-war Gaza?

Meanwhile, according to another report Friday, by The New York Times, officials in Netanyahu’s office were weighing a likely dead-on-arrival plan for post-war Gaza that would see Israel share oversight of the Strip with an alliance of Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The vague plan was likely to be rejected by Israel’s envisioned Arab partners as it doesn’t include an explicit pathway to a Palestinian state. It was also likely to be snubbed by Netanyahu’s far-right partners because it doesn’t explicitly rule out the Palestinian Authority’s return to Gaza or the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state.

“Under the proposal, the Arab-Israeli alliance, working with the United States, would appoint Gazan leaders to redevelop the devastated territory, overhaul its education system and maintain order. After between seven and 10 years, the alliance would allow Gazans to vote on whether to be absorbed into a united Palestinian administration that would govern in both Gaza and the West Bank, according to the proposal. In the meantime, the plan suggests, the Israeli military could continue to operate inside Gaza,” the report said. “The proposal does not explicitly say whether that united administration would constitute a sovereign Palestinian state, or if it would include the Palestinian Authority.”

The plan was crafted in November by a group of unnamed businessmen, some of whom are close to Netanyahu, according to the Times. It has been shown to former British prime minister Tony Blair, who was in contact with senior Saudi officials. A Palestinian businessman has also been involved in promoting the idea to US officials.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former British PM Tony Blair meet in Jerusalem on Monday, July 11, 2016 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

It is believed that 128 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 12 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 35 of those still held by Hamas, citing new 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 has also been 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.

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