Gaza Ceasefire Talks Resume After Weeks of Stalemate

Israeli negotiators traveled to the Gulf nation of Qatar for the first time in weeks on Friday to resume talks on a ceasefire deal that could end the war in Gaza and free hostages held there, after weeks of deadlock in negotiations.

According to an official familiar with the visit, David Barnea, head of the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, led the Israeli delegation to Doha, the capital of Qatar, and met with Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar's prime minister.

Ceasefire negotiations had been stalled for weeks until Wednesday, when Hamas announced it had exchanged ideas with mediators on a new way forward. Both U.S. and Israeli officials said Hamas’ revised position could allow for a deal, but warned that it still faced a series of long and difficult deliberations.

“The head of the Mossad returned a short while ago from an initial meeting with mediators in Doha,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said in a statement Friday night. “It was decided that a delegation will leave next week to continue the negotiations. It is emphasized that there are still gaps between the parties.”

Both sides were to agree on the identity, number and conditions of release of Palestinian prisoners who would be freed in exchange for the 120 living and dead hostages held by Hamas and its allies. They were also to establish a sequence of steps for the Israeli military withdrawal and how much control Israeli forces would have at different stages of the deal.

Most critically, Israel and Hamas must agree on a formula to resolve the main sticking point that has stymied talks for months: Hamas has demanded nothing less than a full ceasefire and a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces, while Israel has vowed to overthrow the Hamas government in Gaza and maintain control of the territory’s security in the post-war period.

Israel and Hamas are negotiating under a three-phase ceasefire announced by President Biden in late May. The two sides refuse to talk directly, requiring Qatari and Egyptian mediators to conduct shuttle diplomacy.

Under the terms of the proposed deal, they would first observe a six-week truce during which the hostages would be released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. During those six weeks, officials would negotiate an end to the war and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas's “military and governance capabilities” in Gaza and continues to say the war will not end until that goal is achieved. But Israel's military, worn out by the ongoing fighting and weighing the possibility of a full-scale battle with Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, now supports a ceasefire deal even if it means keeping Hamas in power.

Michael Milshtein, a former Israeli intelligence officer, said Israel would not succeed in overthrowing Hamas, considering a truce agreement to bring home the remaining hostages the least negative outcome.

“It’s an extremely difficult pill to swallow,” said Mr. Milshtein, who oversaw the Palestinian affairs division in Israeli military intelligence. “But there are no good alternatives here.”

Israel’s political leaders, however, are deeply divided over the proposed deal, which some argue would effectively leave Hamas in power in Gaza. Although Israel’s top leadership has green-lighted the framework agreement, two senior members of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition have vowed to oppose it, threatening to quit the government. That could potentially force the prime minister to choose between a ceasefire and his political survival.

On Friday, Benny Gantz, an opposition leader who recently left Mr. Netanyahu’s war cabinet, reiterated that he would support the prime minister if he decided to push through a cease-fire deal to free the hostages. In that case, Mr. Netanyahu would be forced to rely on his rivals for support, an explosive situation that would almost certainly push the country into new elections.

Mr. Netanyahu has not unequivocally endorsed the proposal for weeks. In a television interview last month, he appeared to walk back his support, saying he would not tolerate an end to the war against Hamas. After protests from hostage families, Mr. Netanyahu zigzagged and publicly endorsed the proposal in late June.

Hamas also faces an equally complex calculus.

In a statement on Friday, Hamas called on all Arab and Muslim countries to pressure Israel to end the “Zionist genocide against our Palestinian people.”

The group also reiterated its rejection of any plan or proposal that would bring foreign forces into the Gaza Strip. The ideas of an Arab peacekeeping force and, more recently, a United Nations peacekeeping force have been floated as possible solutions to help end the war and Israel's occupation of Gaza.

“The administration of the Gaza Strip,” Hamas said, “is a purely Palestinian issue, agreed upon by our Palestinian people in all their diversity.”

Some Gazans have increasingly criticized the armed group for launching the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war without doing enough to protect Gaza's civilians. And any deal would need the blessing of Hamas's leader inside Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, whom Israel has vowed to kill for his role in the surprise assault.

Ahmed Yousef, a veteran Hamas member, blamed Israel’s hardline government for the delay in reaching a ceasefire deal in Gaza. But he said many would likely argue that the war was not worth the high price paid in Gaza, even if a deal called for Israel to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the remaining hostages.

“Even if many prisoners were released, no one would say that any result has been achieved,” said Mr. Yousef, now displaced in southern Gaza.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Friday that Western countries needed to apply collective pressure on Israel to secure a permanent ceasefire. He added that he hoped Mr Biden's intervention and Qatar's mediation efforts would lead to a lasting truce.

As leaders on both sides weigh the path forward, Israel’s war in Gaza has neared the end of its ninth month. The vast majority of the population has been displaced at least once, with many living in tents, and finding enough food and water to survive has become a daily struggle.

Israeli forces continued fighting in Shajaiye, a neighborhood near Gaza City in the territory's north, on Friday in an effort to crack down on Palestinian militants. The Israeli military has increasingly returned to areas of Gaza its forces swept through months ago as it battles renewed insurgencies by Hamas and other armed groups.

“The army can talk all they want about dismantling the battalions, but at the end of the day Hamas survived,” Mr. Milshtein said. “We can tell each other stories all day, but this is not even close to the so-called total victory over Hamas.”

King Abdulrahman contributed to the writing of the report.

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