Mediators expected in Cairo for Gaza truce talks, sources say

Egyptian security officials say Israeli, Hamas delegations due to arrive; another source briefed on talks says Israel will not send reps until it gets list of living hostages

Israelis block a road as they demand the release of the hostages from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip, during a protest outside of the US Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 1, 2024. (AP/Oded Balilty)
Israelis block a road as they demand the release of the hostages from Hamas captivity in the Gaza Strip, during a protest outside of the US Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 1, 2024. (AP/Oded Balilty)

CAIRO – Mediators expected to reconvene in Cairo as soon as Sunday and search for a formula acceptable to Israel and Hamas for a truce in Gaza and a hostage release deal, sources with knowledge of the talks said, after foreign governments resorted to airdrops to aid desperate civilians in the Palestinian enclave.

Israeli and Hamas delegations were expected to arrive in Cairo on Sunday, two Egyptian security sources said, although another source briefed on the talks said Israel would not send a delegation until it got a full list of hostages who are still alive.

Hopes for the first pause in fighting since November rose last week following a previous round of talks mediated by Qatar and Egypt in Doha, and cautious indications from US President Joe Biden that an agreement was close. The president acknowledged Friday that it remains elusive for now.

A senior US official said Saturday that the framework for a six-week pause in fighting was in place, with Israel’s agreement, and now depended on Hamas agreeing to release hostages it has held in Gaza since its shock attack on southern Israel on October 7, when thousands of terrorists went on a killing rampage, slaughtering 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

“The path to a ceasefire right now literally at this hour is straightforward. And there’s a deal on the table. There’s a framework deal.”

The Israelis “have more or less accepted” the proposal, the official told reporters. It includes a six-week ceasefire as well as the release by Hamas of hostages considered vulnerable, which includes the sick, the wounded, the elderly, and women, said the official.

Troops of the Commando Brigade operate in Khan Younis, in a handout image published by the IDF on March 2, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Right now, the ball is in the court of Hamas and we are continuing to push this as hard as we possibly can,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House to brief reporters.

“The onus right now is on Hamas.”

“The hostages have to be released,” the official told reporters on a conference call. “The deal is basically there. But I don’t want to create expectations one way or the other.”

Hamas has not backed away from its position that a temporary truce must be the start of a process towards ending the war altogether, the Egyptian sources and a Hamas official said.

However, the Egyptian sources said assurances had been offered to Hamas that the terms of a permanent ceasefire would be worked out in second and third phases of the deal. The duration of the initial pause of about six weeks had been agreed upon, the sources said.

Both Israel and the Hamas terror group have said that wide gaps remain in their positions.

“When it comes to ending the war and pulling forces out of Gaza, gaps remain unbridged,” a Palestinian official familiar with mediation efforts said.

The Egyptian security sources said mediators had raised options for winning Israel over to a permanent ceasefire deal, including approval of a security buffer zone between Israel and the Gaza Strip and arrangements for Israel to jointly monitor Egypt’s border with Gaza.

Displaced Palestinians gather for food in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip on February 28, 2024, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (AFP).

The senior US official, who was briefed on the previous hostage negotiations, said that for its part, Israel will not take part in more talks until Hamas clarifies the number of hostages slated to go free, and how many are still alive.

Biden has said he hopes a ceasefire will be in place by the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which starts on March 10.

International mediators have been working for weeks to broker a deal to pause the fighting. A deal would allow more aid to reach hundreds of thousands of desperate Palestinians in northern Gaza who aid officials worry are under threat of famine.

The humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian enclave drew renewed attention in recent days following a deadly melee in Gaza City, during which dozens of Palestinians were killed and hundreds more wounded while swarming aid trucks in Gaza City.

Hamas accused Israeli troops of shooting at the crowd of thousands, while the IDF said many of the casualties were trampled in a chaotic crush for the food aid, and that its troops only fired at a few individuals who rushed toward them in a threatening manner.

The Israeli military has vowed to investigate amid mounting calls for a probe and a demand for answers from allies.

In the wake of the incident, the US conducted its first airdrop of food and supplies into Gaza, promising that more was on the way.

Other countries including Jordan, the UK, and France had previously conducted airdrops of aid into Gaza.

Aid for Gaza is loaded onto a US Air Force cargo plane ahead of an airdrop over the enclave, March 2, 2024. (US Central Command photo)

The US has for months been calling for Israel to allow more aid into Gaza, and the issue remains a point of contention. Israel denies restricting humanitarian aid for Gaza civilians and blamed the UN for failing to distribute it.

The UN Security Council issued a statement Saturday voicing “grave concern” over the acute food insecurity in Gaza and urging the unfettered delivery of humanitarian aid “at scale.”

Meanwhile, fighting raged in the early hours of Sunday, as residents reported the sound of heavy shelling and tanks advancing around Khan Younis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip.

Around Rafah, another southern city where more than 1 million Palestinians have been seeking refuge on the border with Egypt, authorities said 25 people were killed on Saturday and into Sunday morning. They included 11 who died when an Israeli airstrike hit a tent near a hospital and another 14 in one family, who died when a strike hit a house, according to Hamas-run health authorities.

Most Popular
read more: