Mossad chief said to brief war cabinet on Qatar talks; officials pessimistic

Hamas’s Doha-based leader Haniyeh accuses Israel of trying to sabotage negotiations following raid on Gaza hospital to flush out terrorists

File: Mossad chief David Barnea speaks during the opening ceremony of the Eli Cohen Museum in Herzliya, December 12, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
File: Mossad chief David Barnea speaks during the opening ceremony of the Eli Cohen Museum in Herzliya, December 12, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Mossad chief David Barnea left Qatar on Tuesday and was back in Israel to brief the war cabinet on the negotiations to reach a truce and hostage deal with Hamas, according to Hebrew media reports.

Barnea returned from Doha to Tel Aviv Tuesday morning where talks, mediated by Qatar, the US, and Egypt, resumed just Monday night. The indirect negotiations to pause the war in Gaza and release hostages abducted on October 7 are estimated to take about two weeks.

A senior Israeli official told Channel 12 there was pessimism that a deal could be reached, saying that while the gaps in positions could be bridged, it was not clear if Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar really seeks an agreement or is just playing for time to fend off a planned Israeli offensive on the southernmost city of Rafah, Hamas’s last stronghold in Gaza and the location of its last four battalions.

Sinwar is said to believe that Hamas has the upper hand, despite the “tactical” losses of troops and ground across north and central Gaza. According to a Wall Street Journal report last month, Sinwar has argued that international pressure would force Israel to end the war and the four battalions in Rafah were prepared for the likely IDF ground assault.

Israel has repeatedly signaled its intent to operate in Rafah as part of its declared war goal to destroy Hamas, the terror group behind the October 7 massacre across southern Israeli communities, where thousands of terrorists killed about 1,200 people and took another 253 hostage.

The unprecedented shock attack sparked the war, now closing in on its six months. A previous deal brokered by mediators in November saw the release of 105 hostages over the course of a weeklong pause to the fighting, in exchange for some 300 Palestinian prisoners.

Demonstrators calling for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip, outside Hakirya Base in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2024 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

US, Egyptian and Qatari mediators had been hoping to reach a second deal to free hostages and halt the war before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began last week, but talks had faltered.

Following some reported pressure on Hamas by Qatar and Egypt to soften its demands, Israel agreed to send a delegation to negotiate an agreement on the table for a six-week truce in Gaza — based on a framework reached in Paris last month — and the release of some 40 children, women, elderly and sick hostages in the first phase, in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

On Monday, a Hamas official said the Palestinian terror group would accept a partial Israeli withdrawal from Gaza before exchanging prisoners, easing previous demands for a complete withdrawal from the territory.

Hamas had said during earlier negotiations that it was seeking a permanent ceasefire, a condition Israel has rejected outright, vowing to stick to its goal of destroying the terror group.

Citing officials familiar with the talks, the Kan public broadcaster said Israel has presented a counter-proposal and wants negotiations to first focus on the release of hostages and Palestinian security prisoners, before tackling a key contentious issue of possibly allowing displaced Gazans to return to the northern part of the enclave.

Hamas is demanding to first negotiate over the return of residents to north Gaza, both Channel 12 and Channel 13 reported, adding that this stance is being read as an attempt to undermine the talks. Channel 13 reported that allowing Gazans to return to the north would hinder the IDF’s maneuvering ability in that part of the territory, and would alleviate military pressure on Hamas.

The senior Israeli official who spoke to Channel 12 said talks “will be long and complex.”

“Even if there is Hamas abroad, they have zero mandate to make decisions. Each comma and each period will take between 24 and 36 hours [to clear with Sinwar],” the official said.

Earlier Tuesday, Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said at a news conference that Qatari officials were “cautiously optimistic” about the negotiations, noting Barnea’s departure back to Israel.

Al-Ansari said technical negotiations between Israel and Hamas were ongoing, with Qatar carrying messages between the parties.

“We are at the point now where we are expecting that the counter-proposal would be presented to Hamas, but this is not the final step in the process,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re at a moment now where we can say that we are close to a deal,” al-Ansari said. “It’s still too early to announce any successes.”

Qatar Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari. (video screenshot)

US media outlet Axios said the opening session of talks in Doha was “positive,” citing what it called a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

However, Ansari warned that the threatened Israeli assault on Rafah, where about 1.5 million Gazans are sheltering, most of them displaced by fighting elsewhere in the territory, could derail the talks.

“Any operation in Rafah right now will be a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said, adding that it would be “difficult for the negotiation process to succeed within the parameters of such an attack.”

Israel says one-sixth of Hamas’s combat strength — four battalions of rifle- and rocket-wielding fighters — is in Rafah and must be crushed before the war can conclude. But the prospect of a spiraling civilian toll has raised alarm abroad.

The planned offensive has strained Israel’s ties with the US, which has been opposed to any military activity without a plan to protect civilians.

People search the rubble and debris of a building that was reportedly hit by overnight Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 19, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

On Monday night, US President Joe Biden effectively ruled out any potential support for a major Israeli ground offensive in Rafah during a phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the premier said he told the president that Israel was “determined to complete the elimination of these [Hamas] battalions in Rafah” and that they agreed on a mechanism for the Americans to share their ideas on humanitarian aid and the evacuation of civilians, a concern that he said Israel shares.

Meanwhile, Hamas’s Qatar-based chief Ismail Haniyeh accused Israel of sabotaging truce talks following its raid on Gaza’s largest hospital, which Israel said targeted senior terrorists who had returned to use the medical facility as a headquarters.

The IDF said dozens of terrorists were killed and arrested during the early Monday raid on Gaza City’s Shifa, a complex crowded with patients and displaced people.

“The actions of the Zionist occupation forces at Shifa Medical Complex confirm their intent to obstruct the recovery of life in Gaza and dismantle essential aspects of human existence,” Haniyeh said.

“The deliberate targeting of police officers and government officials in Gaza illustrates their efforts to sow chaos and perpetuate violence among our resilient people. This also reveals the occupation leaders’ endeavor to sabotage ongoing negotiations in Doha,” he added.

The IDF said that some 180 suspects had been captured in the raid. On Monday, the military said 200 suspects had been detained, indicating some had since been released.

Most Popular
read more: