Israel, Hamas downplay report of progress in truce talks amid optimism from Egypt

Egyptian report says ‘significant progress on several contentious points of agreement,’ claims deal could be finalized this week; Hamas delegation leaves Cairo for consultations

File - 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)
File - 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)

Israeli and Palestinian officials on Monday downplayed reports that a truce and hostage release deal between Israel and Hamas could be reached as early as this week.

Citing a senior Egyptian official involved in the talks, the Egyptian outlet Al-Qahera reported early Monday that talks in Cairo have made “significant progress on several contentious points of agreement.”

Egypt, Qatar and key Israeli ally the United States have mediated previous rounds of negotiations, but a deal has remained elusive.

The state-linked Al-Qahera reported that Qatari and Hamas delegations had left Cairo and were expected to return “within two days to finalize the terms of the agreement.”

US and Israeli delegations were due to leave the Egyptian capital “in the next few hours” and consultations were expected to continue over the next 48 hours, the outlet added.

The report, which was not comfirmed by any of the parties in the talks, came after Israeli officials had indicated cautious optimism on the chances for a deal in comments carried by Hebrew-language media, with Jerusalem giving its delegation wider leeway to make concessions toward an agreement.

“This time is different, we are the closest we’ve been in months to a deal,” Channel 12 news quoted a source close to the talks saying.

On Monday, however, Israeli and Hamas officials downplayed the progress cited in the Egyptian report.

“We still don’t see a deal on the horizon,” an Israeli official told  the Ynet news site. “The distance [between the sides] is still great and there has been nothing dramatic so far,” he added, noting that the Israeli delegation had not yet left Cairo.

Illustrative: Palestinians who had taken refuge in Rafah leave the city to return to Khan Younis after Israel pulled its ground forces out of the southern Gaza Strip, on April 7, 2024.(Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The official’s comments came shortly after an unidentified senior Hamas official in Gaza also denied progress in the talks, telling the Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen news network that “so far there is no progress” and blaming Israel’s “obstinance.”

Israel’s delegation was led by David Barnea, head of the Mossad, and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar. The Hamas delegation, invited by Egypt, was led by Khalil Al-Hayya, the terror group’s deputy chief in Gaza.

The two delegations reportedly arrived in Cairo on Sunday following the arrival on Saturday of CIA Director William Burns at the head of the US delegation. The Haaretz daily reported that the US had presented the parties with a new draft proposal Sunday night.

The other two mediator countries, Egypt and Qatar, were respectively represented by Abbas Kamel, head of Egypt’s Intelligence Directorate, and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

Khalil al-Hayya, Hamas’s deputy chief in Gaza, speaks during an interview in November 2023 (video screenshot; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

A senior Egyptian official told the Qatari-backed, London-based New Arab news site on Sunday that “the agreement is approaching intensely,” with a humanitarian truce likely over the Eid al-Fitr holiday, April 9-12, which marks the end of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. The official intimated a deal could be announced from Cairo.

A diplomatic source told the Kan public broadcaster that “all sides are exhibiting greater flexibility than before,” and that “the American pressure is crucial to arrive at an agreement.”

US President Joe Biden on Thursday held what was said to be a tense call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which the president urged the premier to “empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay to bring the hostages home.” Netanyahu was reported by Kan to have complied with Biden’s request.

Hamas and other terror groups are still holding 129 of the 253 hostages seized on October 7, during a shock onslaught on southern Israel that killed nearly 1,200 people. Israel launched a military campaign aimed at destroying the Hamas regime in Gaza and releasing the hostages. Hamas has also been holding, for nearly a decade, two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers.

The prime minister said in opening remarks to the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday that Israel would not agree to a ceasefire without the release of hostages, adding that despite growing international pressure, Israel would not give in to “extreme” demands from Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the weekly cabinet meeting, April 7, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Hamas, in a statement after meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas on Sunday, said it had “affirmed its adherence” to its previous demands that any hostage release be conditioned on a full ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, along with the return of displaced Palestinians to their homes and an increase in humanitarian aid.

Ministers and other Israeli officials familiar with the details of the talks told Channel 12 on Saturday that the main sticking point in the talks was the question of the return of displaced Palestinians to the northern Gaza Strip.

A senior Israeli official told Channel 12 news: “We are in critical days the likes of which we have not since the first deal” in November, when 105 hostages held by Hamas were exchanged for 240 Palestinian security prisoners in Israel during a weeklong truce.

Netanyahu is “desperate for a [ceasefire and hostage] deal,” a senior source in the government told Sky News on Sunday, adding that “everything you see happening today is linked to hostage negotiations.”

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers walking next to the destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7, 2023, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, November 21, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The fighting has effected a humanitarian crisis in the enclave, half of whose population has been displaced over the past six months.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 33,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas terrorists Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

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