Qatar ‘cautiously optimistic’ as Gaza truce talks get down to brass tacks

Mossad chief Barnea heads home after high-level meeting, leaving technical team to drill down on details of potential hostage deal, Doha spokesperson says

People walk by photographs of Israelis still held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv. March 14, 2024. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
People walk by photographs of Israelis still held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv. March 14, 2024. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

A senior Qatari official expressed tentative hopes that talks on a Gaza truce and hostage release between Israel and Hamas could advance, as Mossad chief David Barnea flew back to Israel Tuesday.

Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said it was too early to say the sides were nearing a deal, as negotiators got down to brass tacks in hopes of reaching an elusive agreement to pause fighting for at least six weeks and secure the release of at least 40 hostages held captive in Gaza.

Barnea, who headed Israel’s delegation to the talks in Qatar, “has left Doha,” Ansari told a regular briefing, adding that “technical teams are meeting as we speak.”

Barnea arrived with the Israeli team in Doha on Monday for talks with the Qatari premier and Egyptian officials, as what were expected to be two weeks of indirect negotiations in the Qatari capital kicked off.

Ansari said technical teams were looking at details of a potential deal after the principal negotiators had discussed the “main issues.” Hamas was awaiting Israel’s response to its latest offer, which was rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet late last week.

“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,” Ansari said.

“I don’t think we are at a moment were we can say we are close to a deal. We are cautiously optimistic because talks have resumed, but it’s too early to announce any successes,” he added.

File – Qatari Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari gives details of a planned hostage release, at a press conference in Doha, November 23, 2023. (CNN screenshot, used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

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.

“Both parties came with some compromises and willingness to negotiate,” the source said, according to the report.

The new truce push follows the latest proposal from Hamas for a six-week ceasefire, vastly more aid entering Gaza and the initial release of about 40 female, elderly and wounded hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

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

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

File – Israel’s Mossad Director David Barnea speaks during the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) World Summit in the central coastal city of Herzliya on September 10, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Hamas-led terrorists started the war in Gaza when they breached the Israeli border by the thousands, storming towns in southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and take 253 hostages of all ages, while committing numerous atrocities and weaponizing sexual violence on a mass scale.

Vowing to dismantle the Palestinian terror group, Israel launched an unprecedented ground and air offensive on the Strip, destroying about half its residences and displacing upward of a million people. Nearly the entire 2.2 million residents of the Strip face acute food insecurity.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 31,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas fighters Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Around 100 hostages are thought to remain in Gaza, along with the bodies of over 30 people.

People inspect destroyed vehicles following overnight Israeli bombardment at the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on March 19, 2024 amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

A previous weeklong truce saw around 100 civilian hostages released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

The talks have grown increasingly urgent as UN officials warn that the Strip is on the brink of famine, leading to intensifying calls for more aid to enter the enclave.

Ansari also opined that an Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip’s southernmost city of Rafah would result in major destruction and “atrocities” that have not been seen in the conflict.

The city is now home to about a million Palestinians displaced from the Strip’s north and center, and Israel has insisted it must operate there to fully dismantle Hamas, in accord with the country’s stated war aim.

Demonstrators calling for the release of Israeli hostages held by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip, outside the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Saudi Arabia and Egypt this week to discuss the truce push and ways to step up deliveries of desperately needed relief supplies.

“According to the most respected measure of these things, 100 percent of the population in Gaza is at severe levels of acute food insecurity,” Blinken said on a visit to the Philippines Tuesday. “That’s the first time an entire population has been so classified.”

The talks in the Qatari capital are the first since weeks of intense negotiations involving Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators failed to secure a truce between Israel and Hamas ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

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