Israel, the USA and Qatar are negotiating a ceasefire in the Middle East in Egypt. Israel’s war goal remains the destruction of Hamas.
The negotiations for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and the release of Israeli hostages are a matter for the secret service. On Tuesday, the heads of the American CIA, the Israeli foreign intelligence service Mossad, the Israeli domestic intelligence service Shin Bet and mediators from Qatar met in Cairo. Its aim is to take a decisive step forward in negotiations for a ceasefire, the release of Israeli hostages and their exchange with Palestinians in Israeli prisons.
According to Egyptian government sources, negotiators have actually made “relatively significant” progress in negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and the militant Islamist Hamas. No further details were known at the time of going to press.
The initial situation: Israel is offering a six-week ceasefire for the release of all hostages, as US President Joe Biden announced on the eve of the negotiations in Cairo at a press conference in Washington after a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdallah. There are still around 130 abductees in Gaza.
Hamas’s initial reaction was clear: Osama Hamdan, Hamas’s highest official in Lebanon, went to the press in Beirut almost simultaneously and declared that this was less than the lowest common denominator agreed upon at the intelligence talks in Paris on February 5 was. Hamas wants to release the hostages in three phases within 45 days of ceasefire. Only when it is guaranteed after the first phase that the Gaza war is over will the last hostages, Israeli military personnel, be released. However, Hamas has indicated that it could be flexible regarding the number and names of Palestinian prisoners to be exchanged. Both Egypt and Qatar have pressed Hamas for further concessions.
The sticking point remains: The Islamist terrorist organization wants an end to the war as a prerequisite for the release of all hostages. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that he would view this as a defeat at this point. He still posits the destruction of Hamas as the primary goal of the war.
Egypt fears a mass exodus from the Gaza Strip to North Sinai
The negotiations are taking place under the Israeli threat of a military offensive in Rafah. Israel wants to put more pressure on Hamas in the negotiations. For its part, it has announced that the negotiations over the release of the hostages would be null and void with an Israeli military offensive in Rafah, in order to light more fire under the negotiating cauldron.
Egypt fears a mass exodus from Gaza to North Sinai if the Rafah offensive takes place. Cairo doesn’t just see this as a security problem. The Egyptian government fears becoming part of a Palestinian displacement scenario. It is questionable whether there will be anything left of Gaza after the war to which Palestinians could return. It is equally questionable whether Israel would ever leave the Palestinians behind again. Parts of Netanyahu’s right-wing government coalition are openly promoting a final expulsion of the Palestinians from the Gaza Strip.
Over the weekend, reports circulated that Egypt could suspend the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in the event of a Rafah offensive. With the Camp David Accords, Egypt was the first Arab state to recognize Israel and made peace in 1979. Its suspension would be a serious blow to Israel’s security. Ending the Camp David Accords would also put pressure on Jordan, the second Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Samih Shukri has since publicly denied the rumors that had come from diplomatic circles. However, Egyptian diplomats point out that an Israeli Rafah offensive could violate the Camp David Treaty. There is also a demilitarized buffer zone between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, the so-called Philadelphia Passage. Only a limited military presence is permitted there on both sides, i.e. from Egypt and Israel. Heavy weapons are prohibited.
In order to prevent an exodus to Egypt, the USA is putting pressure on Netanyahu to open a way out for the trapped Palestinians through a corridor to the north in a Rafah offensive, i.e. in the direction of the Israeli army coming from there. The problem here is that large parts of the northern Gaza Strip are completely destroyed, with no water, no electricity and insufficient food. People would literally be faced with the ruins of their former lives without being cared for.
As an alternative, reports this Wall Street Journal of an Israeli proposal that Egypt could set up 15 camps with 25,000 tents in the southwestern part of the Gaza Strip, financed by the US and the Gulf states. The newspaper relies on Egyptian sources. Even if this plan comes to fruition, it would pose a huge logistical challenge and would take time to implement. Rafah has swelled to five times its original population due to internally displaced people who had hoped to find safety there in the southern corner of the Gaza Strip. An estimated 1.4 million people live there in desperate conditions: this corresponds to the population of Munich.
Israel’s government is said to have called on UN agencies operating in the region to help evacuate civilians from Rafah. She sees Rafah as the last bastion of the Islamist Hamas, which she wants to destroy in the course of the Gaza war.
But the United Nations does not want to take part in the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the city of Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip, according to the UN emergency relief office Ocha. “The Israeli government has not spoken to us about such plans,” Ocha spokesman Jens Laerke told the German Press Agency in Geneva. “Regardless, we will not take part in plans to forcibly relocate people,” said Laerke. “We would also not provide tent cities elsewhere for Israeli forces to forcibly relocate people.”
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