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Israel puts Gaza ceasefire ball in Hamas’ court.

Ball in Hamas' Court

Israel’s latest Gaza ceasefire and prisoner exchange proposal puts the ball in Hamas’ court.

The proposal, drafted in recent days by Israeli negotiators and Egyptian interlocutors, goes some way to address Hamas’ long-standing demands.

The proposal makes concessions Israel has rejected in the past but raises as many questions as it opens doors to possible breakthroughs in the long-stalled negotiations mediated by Qatar and Egypt.

In response, Hamas said it was “studying” the proposal and was “open to any ideas” but insisted that a deal must end the seven-month-old Gaza war. The group said it is sending its negotiators to Cairo for further talks.

Both Hamas and Israel want to be seen as being constructive in their efforts to revive the negotiations.

For both parties, the background music to their latest positions tells part of the story, even if significant gaps remain between Hamas’ demands and what Israel is willing to accept.

Significantly, Hamas’ response was issued by political bureau member and ceasefire negotiator Khalil al-Hayya.

Days earlier, Mr. Al-Hayya declared that Hamas would disarm, limit itself to being a political party, and accept a long-term ceasefire with Israel as part of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that involved the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.

At the same time, Hamas’s military wing published a video of two Israeli captives held in Gaza in the first sign of life of the two men, including dual Israeli-American national Keith Siegel.

The video release came amid concern that an unclear but not insignificant number of the more than 100 remaining Hamas-held Israeli and foreign national hostages were killed in the Gaza fighting.

Hamas and other Palestinians kidnapped 250 people during the group’s October 7 attack on Israel. Hamas released more than 100 captives in November in exchange for 240 Palestinians incarcerated in Israel in a Qatar-engineered deal.

Israel believes many of the remaining hostages are in tunnels underneath the Gazan city of Rafah, shielding the group’s top leaders as Israel prepares to launch a ground offensive in the enclave that is home to more than a million Palestinians displaced by the war.

Israel could suspend the Rafah operation if Hamas and Israel agree on a ceasefire that involves the release of the hostages, according to Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz.

“The release of the hostages is the top priority for us,” Mr. Katz said.

Mr. Katz spoke as thousands of protesters across Israel called on the government to prioritise hostage release over the defeat of Hamas and demanded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s resignation.

Israeli media reports suggest that war cabinet members Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, a former military chief of staff, could leave the government if a ceasefire deal is not concluded.

Adding to the pressure are reports that the International Criminal Court could soon issue indictments or arrest warrants for Mr. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff Herzl Halevi.

A ceasefire deal would relieve US and international pressure on Israel not to launch a Rafah offensive that many fear could cost the lives of a large number of innocent Palestinians in a war that already has taken a devastating toll on Palestinians and prompted accusations of genocide.

Israel and Hamas, increasingly criticised by Gazans for fighting a war at their expense, were jockeying as Qatar, the United States, and Arab governments stepped up pressure on both to agree on a ceasefire.

Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari, in a first-ever Qatari interview with Israeli media and attempt to address Israelis directly, blamed both Israel and Hamas for the deadlock in the negotiations.

“The talks have effectively stopped, and both sides are entrenched in their positions… But if there is a renewed sense of commitment on both sides, I’m sure we can reach a deal that would be able to bring more people home to their families,” Mr. Al-Ansari told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Egypt took the initiative to revive the negotiations after Qatar said it was reevaluating its mediating role because of Israeli and Hamas intransigence and the questioning of its role by Israel and US Congress members.

“We are reassessing the commitment of both sides, and one of the main reasons for this is that we’ve gotten all of these statements that contradict the show of commitment to the talks themselves,” Mr. Al-Ansari said.

Speaking separately to Israel’s Channel 12, Mr. Al-Ansari added, “We need more pressure on both sides…to reach a deal.”

Mr. Al-Ansari spoke as Arab foreign ministers met in Riyadh to discuss Gaza in advance of a visit to the kingdom by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The devil is in the details on whether the latest Israeli proposal will get the ceasefire negotiations back on track.

The Israeli proposal appears to make concessions on Hamas’ demands for a permanent ceasefire; a full return of Gazans to their often destroyed homes in northern Gaza, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Strip, and a start of the reconstruction of the war-ravaged territory.

In its latest proposal, Israel reiterated its willingness to let Palestinians return to their homes. Israel and Hamas differ on what the flow of returning Palestinians would entail, including how many would be allowed to return daily and whether Israeli forces would be able to impose security checks.

The Israeli proposal suggested that Israel would withdraw its forces from the Central Gazan corridor that separates the north from the south. It was unclear whether that would constitute a complete withdrawal from the Strip.

In early April, Israel said it was pulling its ground troops out of southern Gaza, leaving only two brigades in the Strip, one in the north and one in the Wadi Gaza corridor.

The proposal further involves Israel’s willingness to engage in discussion about Gaza’s “continuing peaceful restoration.” It was not clear whether Israel’s phrasing referred exclusively to physical reconstruction or also what post-war governance of Gaza would look like.

Rather than speaking of a permanent ceasefire, the Israeli proposal describes a longer-term end to the war as the “restoration of sustainable calm” to be negotiated after an initial six-week ceasefire during which Hamas would release the remaining 20-33 women, men over the age of 60, and people with serious medical conditions it holds captive in exchange for a yet to be negotiated number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

“We hope that what we have proposed is enough to bring Hamas into serious negotiations. We hope Hamas sees we are serious about reaching a deal — and we are serious,” an Israeli official said.

“They should understand that it is possible that if the first stage is implemented, it will be possible to advance to the next stages and reach the end of the war,” the official added.

The joker in the Israeli proposal is that Hamas would have to trust Israel’s assertion that it is serious.

While the Israeli proposal appears to demonstrate a degree of flexibility Israel has not displayed in the past, betting on seriousness requires a leap of faith for both Israel and Hamas, for which the last seven months provide little encouragement.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

About the Author
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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