ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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In Riyadh, Arab ministers agree to advance joint plan for post-war Gaza — diplomats

Foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Qatar reiterate call for an immediate ceasefire, seek ‘irreversible’ steps towards recognition of Palestinian state

Ministers from the Palestinian Authority, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt hold a meeting on the Gaza war in Riyadh on February 8, 2024. (Saudi Press Agency)
Ministers from the Palestinian Authority, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt hold a meeting on the Gaza war in Riyadh on February 8, 2024. (Saudi Press Agency)

Top ministers from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority agreed at a meeting in Riyadh Thursday to move forward with plans to present a joint political vision for rehabilitating the Gaza Strip and establishing a Palestinian state after the Israel-Hamas war, two senior diplomats told The Times of Israel Friday.

Several drafts of the plan have already begun circulating between the countries, though it is unclear when it will be unveiled.

In the meantime, the participating countries used the meeting to reiterate their call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

The official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported that four top Middle Eastern diplomats reiterated calls for “irreversible” steps towards the recognition of a Palestinian state during talks.

The Thursday meeting — first reported by The Times of Israel — was held as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded his fifth crisis tour of the Middle East since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war and was attended by the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, as well as a senior Palestinian Authority official.

While Qatar is often left out of such discussions given its support for Islamist governments, the decision to include Doha is a recognition of its influence over Hamas, which participating countries believe is essential for post-war planning.

Most Arab countries that participated in Thursday’s meeting don’t want Hamas to be included in the political leadership of Gaza after the war, but they do believe that the terror group will manage to survive in some form and that a level of its acquiescence will be needed in order to successfully advance the rehabilitation of Gaza, a diplomat explained to The Times of Israel.

Men sweep water away from the entrance of a school run by UNRWA that is sheltering displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 8, 2024, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian terror group Hamas. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

“In their meeting, the ministers emphasized the need to end the war on the Gaza Strip, reach an immediate and complete ceasefire, ensure the protection of civilians in accordance with international humanitarian law, and lift all restrictions that impede the entry of humanitarian aid into the enclave,” read a Saudi readout on the meeting.

They also voiced support for UNRWA, the UN Palestinian aid agency that is under fire over Israeli accusations that 12 staff members were involved in Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, and that many more have ties to terror groups, the readout said. “They also stressed the importance of taking irreversible steps to implement the two-state solution and recognize the state of Palestine on the borders of June 4, 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

The vision that the Arab countries sought to promote during their Thursday meeting has been championed by the Biden administration for months, and Blinken again laid it out for Israelis during his visit to Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

“It will be up to Israelis to decide what they want to do… All that we can do is to show what the possibilities are… The alternative right now looks like an endless cycle of violence and destruction and despair. We know where the better path lies, but I don’t minimize in any way the very difficult decisions that would need to be made by all concerned to travel down that path,” he said.

Following the October 7 attack, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas, launching airstrikes and a ground offensive that has killed at least 27,840 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza. The figure has not been verified and is believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, some as a consequence of the terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF has said that it has killed at least 10,000 Hamas terrorists in battle in addition to 1,000 who were killed inside Israel on October 7.

Blinken’s tour of the region ended without him securing a pause in fighting after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered troops to “prepare to operate” in Rafah, the last major town in the Gaza Strip ground forces have yet to enter.

UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City, January 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

The gathering is the latest example of the united front that Israel’s Arab partners and potential allies are building, one that is increasingly at odds with Netanyahu’s government, which expects the war to continue for many more months until “total victory” is secured. On the other hand, the grouping of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia is offering Israel a partnership that could be used to more effectively combat Iran, which Netanyahu has long sought.

Four months into the war, areas in northern Gaza that the IDF managed to clear of Hamas fighters early on in the war have begun to see their resurgence in recent days, highlighting the difficult task Israel faces in completely defeating the terror group, particularly without cooperation from its Arab allies in filling the vacuum with a more moderate power.

The prime minister has stressed that Israel must maintain security control over the entire area west of the Jordan River, which would leave whatever Palestinian state that could be created in that space as less than fully sovereign. Abbas and other PA officials have long ago accepted that their future state would be demilitarized, so there might not necessarily be a contradiction there.

However, the current makeup of Netanyahu’s coalition includes far-right elements who are even more adversarial toward the Palestinians than he is, pushing for mass displacement of Gaza’s residents and calling to dissolve the PA. Determined to keep his house in order, the premier has avoided even holding discussions regarding post-war strategy, let alone agreeing to concessions that would see Palestinian sovereignty boosted.

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