By Raneen Sawafta, Fadi Shana and Nidal Al-Mughrabi
Wednesday January 31, 2024
Palestinians fleeing Khan Younis, due to the Israeli ground operation, move towards Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, January 29. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem Acquire Licensing Rights
Hamas said on Tuesday it had received and was studying a new proposal for a ceasefire and release of hostages in Gaza, presented by mediators after talks with Israel, in what appeared to be the most serious peace initiative for months.
A senior Hamas official told Reuters the proposal involved a three-stage truce, during which the group would first release remaining civilians among hostages it captured on Oct. 7, then soldiers, and finally the bodies of hostages that were killed.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not indicate how long the stages would last or what was envisioned to follow the final stage.
But it was the first time since the collapse of the only brief truce of the war so far, in late November, that details were released of a new proposal being considered by both sides.
The ceasefire proposal followed talks in Paris involving intelligence chiefs from Israel, the United States and Egypt, with the prime minister of Qatar. In a mark of the seriousness of the negotiations, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said he was going to Cairo to discuss it, his first public trip there for more than a month.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his vow not to pull troops out of Gaza until “total victory”, a reminder of the huge gap in the public stances of the warring sides over what it would take to halt combat even temporarily.
Hamas, whose fighters precipitated the war by storming into Israeli towns on Oct. 7 killing 1,200 people and capturing 253 hostages, says it will release its remaining captives only as part of a wider deal to end the war permanently.
Israel, which has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians so far in a war that has devastated the enclave, says it will not stop fighting until the militant group which has ruled Gaza since 2007 is eradicated.
Netanyahu is under pressure from ally Washington to chart a path towards ending the war, and domestically from relatives of hostages who worry that negotiations are the only way to bring them home. But far-right parties in his ruling coalition say they will quit rather than endorse a deal to free hostages that left Hamas intact.
The diplomatic advances were announced hours after Israeli commandos, disguised as medical workers and Muslim women, stormed into a hospital in the West Bank in an undercover raid. They killed three Palestinian militants, including a paralysed fighter shot dead on the bed where he was being treated.
In Gaza itself, there was intense fighting in both the northern and southern halves of the enclave, with battle resuming in the north even as Israeli forces are trying to storm the main southern city Khan Younis.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli troops advancing in Khan Younis stormed the hospital where the rescue service has its headquarters, and ordered staff and displaced civilians out at gunpoint. Israel denied this. Reuters could not independently verify either account.
Hamas leader Haniyeh said he was studying the ceasefire proposal. The priority for Hamas was to end the Israeli offensive and secure a full troop withdrawal, he said.
Netanyahu, speaking during a visit to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, said: “We will not compromise on anything less than total victory.”
“That means eliminating Hamas, returning all of our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel.”
Until then no Palestinian prisoners will be freed from Israeli jails, Netanyahu said.
Sami Abu Zuhri, another senior Hamas official, said Netanyahu’s comments “prove he isn’t interested in the success of the Paris meeting and doesn’t care about (Israeli) prisoners’ lives”.
The fighting in Gaza has led to escalation elsewhere across the Middle East, including attacks on U.S.
forces by armed groups allied to Iran. Washington is considering its response after three U.S. soldiers were killed on Saturday in Jordan, in an attack Washington said bore “footprints” of the pro-Iranian Ketaib Hezbollah militia in neighbouring Iraq.
On Tuesday, in a rare step towards de-escalation, Ketaib Hezbollah said it was suspending armed operations against the United States to avoid “embarrassing” the Iraqi government.
“Clearly what happened was a step too far and put everyone at a crossroads,” an Iraqi official told Reuters.
DRESSED AS MEDICS
In the Israeli raid at the Ibn Sina hospital in the West Bank city of Jenin, about a dozen troops, including three in women’s garb and two dressed as Palestinian medics, paced through a corridor with rifles, CCTV footage showed.
They headed to the third floor and killed three men using silenced pistols, including one being treated for injuries that paralysed him. One was a member of Hamas and the other two were members of Islamic Jihad, the two groups confirmed.
The Israeli military said one of the men was armed, and one was planning an attack on Israel similar to Oct. 7 from inside the hospital. It said the incident showed militants were using civilian areas and hospitals as shelters and “human shields”.
Palestinian officials said the three were not engaged in fighting, and called the raid a violation of humanitarian law which protects hospitals.
“They executed the three men as they slept in the room… in cold blood, by firing bullets directly into their heads inside the room, where they were being treated,” hospital director Najy Nazzal said.
In Rafah, on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, Palestinians held a mass burial on Tuesday for around 100 unidentified bodies handed over by Israel, including some believed to have been dug up from cemeteries by Israeli troops.
Issa Abu Sarhan had come to look for his son.
“I had buried my son in Al-Nimsawi cemetery in Khan Younis, and I heard that the Jews took the bodies from the cemetery, so I came here,” he said.
Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Daniel Williams in Jerusalem, Nidal Al Mughrabi in Doha, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Clauda Tanios in Dubai, Emma Farge in Geneva, Writing by Angus MacSwan and Peter Graff, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones