OPINIONS

Mon 26 Feb 2024 8:44 am - Jerusalem Time

Israel and Hamas are inching toward a cease-fire deal

By David Ignatius

 

The Biden administration is pressing Israel and Hamas hard to agree to a new hostage-release deal that would bring an extended pause in fighting before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in slightly more than two weeks.

The intense bargaining over the hostage deal reflects the Biden administration’s sense that the Gaza war might be reaching another inflection point as it nears its fifth month of brutal combat. U.S. officials believe that if they can get a pause of roughly six weeks, they can begin a broader process in de-escalation in the Middle East. Otherwise, the fuse is lit for another explosion when Ramadan starts, on about March 10.

CIA Director William J. Burns presented an American “bridging” proposal on Friday in Paris to representatives of Israel and of Qatar and Egypt, which are acting as mediators with Hamas, according to Israeli sources who are familiar with the negotiations. Behind the new U.S. push is a fear that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is deteriorating sharply.

The U.S. plan calls for release of 40 Israeli hostages, mostly women and elderly men. That would be accompanied by a pause in fighting of at least 40 days to allow significant new flows of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Negotiators will travel to Qatar on Monday for another round of bargaining, when Qatari and Egyptian officials can present the details to Hamas representatives who are based in Doha.

 

The sticking point is a sharp disagreement between Israel and Hamas over the number of Palestinian prisoners who would be released at the same time as the Israeli hostages. Israel is ready to accept a 3-for-1 ratio, which would free more than 100 Palestinians. Hamas initially made what Israeli officials call a “ridiculously large” demand for thousands of prisoners — virtually every Palestinian in captivity, including many Israel regards as terrorist murderers.

The prisoner issue has been the main impasse in the hostage talks for weeks. Hamas might be willing to settle for many hundreds of prisoners, rather than thousands, the Israeli sources believe. But closing this gap won’t be easy.

Burns’s proposal has three main elements, according to the knowledgeable Israeli sources. Complicated details remain on each item, but the basics are clear.

The first step would be a major increase in humanitarian assistance during the pause in fighting. That would include more aid trucks, more shelter for displaced Gazans, reopening of bakeries and other commercial sources of food, and work to rebuild shattered infrastructure. Providing security for the aid convoys and relief workers would remain a huge challenge because armed gangs are attacking trucks entering Gaza and blocking them from delivering supplies. But Israeli officials hope this thievery would decrease once supplies are more plentiful. The second part of Burns’s formula is a plan for limited and gradual return of Palestinians to their homes during the truce. Israelis fear that the areas in the north remain too dangerous for easy passage, so negotiators will assess the terrain carefully before agreeing on details.

The third element is the prisoner release formula, which is symbolically important for both sides. One interesting question is whether the release docket would include Marwan Barghouti, who led the first and second intifadas more than two decades ago and is widely seen as the person who could best unify Palestinians postwar.

 

A hostage-release plan would turn down the heat, but it wouldn’t end the war. Israel remains determined to continue the conflict, with timeouts along the way, until Hamas is defeated, if not destroyed altogether. Israeli plans for “the day after” remain fuzzy and, in the view of Biden administration officials, highly unrealistic.

One detail in the hostage-release negotiations illustrates how far this conflict is from an endgame. Hamas has demanded that during the truce, Israeli forces withdraw to the Gaza boundary. Israelis fear that if they did so, Hamas would take control of the territory again. Israel isn’t likely to budge on that demand.

The deal Burns is trying to broker wouldn’t resolve any of the big questions about Israel and the Palestinians. But it would at least prevent a terrible situation in Gaza from getting even worse. And a pause in fighting would open the way for other, bolder proposals from the United States and its allies that might create a pathway toward a real solution.

 

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