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Truce talks near collapse as Israel prepares Rafah attack

Truce talks on brink of collapse as Israel prepares for Rafah invasion
5 min read
06 May, 2024
A Hamas source told The New Arab that the group will no longer be engaging in ceasefire talks and will postpone its delegation's return to Cairo.
Palestinians sheltering east of Rafah began to evacuate on Monday following calls from the Israeli military [GETTY]

Ceasefire talks between Hamas and Israel collapsed in all but name on Monday after a senior Hamas source announced that the group would pause participation in response to Israel's decision to order Palestinians to leave parts of Rafah ahead of an invasion.

The Palestinian group had been expected to give a final response to the fragile talks in the coming day, as mediators have been scrambling to iron out sticking points between the two warring parties, which includes Israel's opposition to Hamas' desire for a permanent ceasefire.

A Hamas delegation had left Cairo on Sunday with the plan to return this week for conclusive talks. But after consultations in Doha, a senior Turkey-based Hamas source told The New Arab on Monday that a delegation would not return to Egypt and the discussions would be put on hold.

The about-turn follows the Israeli military directive on Monday which ordered some 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate neighbourhoods east of Rafah to a so-called "expanded humanitarian zone" along the Al-Mawasi beach, in advance of a long-expected ground invasion that is set to cause widespread devastation.

The Hamas official said that Israel's decision to press ahead with the invasion ignores international opinion and disregards chances for hostages to be released.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the negotiations in Cairo with Egyptian and Qatari mediators since Friday had been making progress until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said over the weekend that Israel would continue the war with or without a deal.

The source said: "Israel has a great chance to end the war, but every time Netanyahu failed in efforts to release the Israeli hostages." 

The Hamas official, who used to live in Gaza, warned that it is unlikely that the hostages would be released unless Israel agreed to end the war on Gaza, which has so far killed at least 34,735 Palestinians.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel could not accept ending the war and "leaving Hamas intact" despite earlier hopes that a deal could see the release of Israeli hostages following months of pressure from at home and abroad.

Last-ditch attempts

Netanyahu has faced growing pressure and unpopularity in Israel over his refusal to prioritise the safe return of some 130 Israeli captives over a continuation of Israel's indiscriminate war on Gaza. There are fears that an attack on Rafah could threaten the lives of hostages held by Hamas and other Palestinian groups.

American, Qatari, and Egyptian mediators are reportedly scrambling to hold up the collapsing talks as Hamas officials said they would return to Cairo on Tuesday.

CIA director William Burns flew to Israel on Monday in a last-ditch attempt for a deal after spending the past 24 hours in Cairo and Doha speaking with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

A Hamas source told Arabic language news outlet Arabi 21 on Monday that Washington has begun supporting demands for an end to the war and that the coming days would be "decisive".

There remain three controversial points to the deal, according to the unnamed Hamas source.

"A full ceasefire, allowing the displaced to return to north Gaza and the military withdrawal from the Strip including from the Netzarim Corridor," the source said, referring to the east-west "buffer-zone" established by the Israeli military in March.

The source said that most important issue for Hamas is a guarantee of a full ceasefire – a point which Israel has so far refused to concede.

Israel prepares for Rafah invasion

The deal on the table at present would be implemented in three stages and begin with a 40 day pause in hostilities to initiate a handover of 33 hostages in exchange for 800 to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Before starting the second stage an assurance of a ceasefire would be needed from Israel, the source said, and mediators have been unable to persuade Israel to agree to it.

But Israel's announcement early on Monday of the forced evacuation of some 100,000 Palestinians ahead of its long-threatened incursion into Rafah has threatened to completely derail discussions.

Observers suspect that the timing of Israel's decision was planned to place further pressure on Hamas, just as it seemed the Palestinians might be ready to agree to a deal.

There are fears that a ground invasion of Rafah, where some 1.4 million Palestinians have fled to, could cause mass civilian casualties and decimate the last city in the Gaza Strip still standing.

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Israel has been preparing for the invasion for some weeks; relocating reservists brigades from the north to the south and arranging tanks, weaponry and soldiers at bases along the southern border.

It is expected that Israel will deploy a multidomain military offensive that will include a combined ground and air assault that could last for months.

A Hamas missile attack on an Israeli military base near the Karam Abu Salem border crossing on Sunday which killed four soldiers and injured at least 15 others has added further complications.

Israel is now using the attack as further justification to enter Rafah, from where it said that Hamas launched the missile barrage.

A potential attack on Rafah has caused worry in neighbouring Egypt, with authorities there concerned that it could trigger attempts by desperate Palestinians to break into the Sinai. Earlier this year, Cairo took preliminary measures to strengthen its border wall as attacks moved further south.

Israel is said to have informed Egypt late on Sunday of its plans to order an evacuation, according to reports in Arabic media.

Adding to expectations of an imminent invasion, Israel's defence minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday said that action in Rafah would happen "in the near future" after claiming that Hamas "does not intend to follow any agreement with us".