Displaced Palestinians react near their tents following an Israeli strike on a car, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 7, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

DOHA/TEL AVIV/GAZA: Hamas has proposed a ceasefire plan that would quiet the guns in Gaza for four-and-a-half months, during which all hostages would go free, Israel would withdraw its troops from the Gaza Strip and an agreement would be reached on an end to the war.

The militant group’s proposal — a response to an offer sent last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators and cleared by Israel and the United States — came during the biggest diplomatic push yet for an extended halt to the fighting.

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There was no immediate public response from Israel, which has said it will not pull its troops out of Gaza until Hamas is wiped out.

The Hamas counterproposal envisages three phases of a truce, lasting 45 days each. Militants would exchange remaining Israeli hostages captured on October 7 for Palestinian prisoners. The reconstruction of Gaza would begin, Israeli forces would withdraw completely, and bodies and remains would be exchanged.

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Meanwhile, Egypt and Qatar are sponsoring a new round of negotiations to start Thursday in Cairo aimed at achieving “calm” in Gaza as well as a prisoner-hostage exchange, an Egyptian official said.

A Hamas source with knowledge of the matter confirmed the Palestinian group had agreed to the talks, with the goal of “a ceasefire, an end to the war and a prisoner exchange deal”.

The Egyptian official said Cairo was urging “both parties to show the necessary flexibility” to achieve a truce in Hamas-run Gaza, where the health ministry says nearly 28,000 people have been killed in four months of war.

The site of the Israeli strike on a car in Rafah on February 7, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

“Egypt is undertaking intense and persistent efforts to reach a truce agreement in the Gaza Strip,” he added. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived overnight in Israel after meeting the leaders of mediators Qatar and Egypt.

A source close to the negotiations said the Hamas counterproposal did not require a guarantee of a permanent ceasefire at the outset, but an end to the war would have to be agreed during the truce before the final hostages were freed.

Ezzat Al Reshiq, a member of the Hamas political bureau, confirmed that the proposal had been passed on via Qatar and Egypt to Israel and the United States.

“We were keen to deal with it in a positive spirit to stop the aggression against our Palestinian people and secure a complete and lasting ceasefire as well as provide relief, aid, shelter and reconstruction,” he told Reuters.

According to the document, during the first 45-day phase, all Israeli women hostages, males under 19 and the elderly and sick would be released, in exchange for the release of Palestinian women and children from Israeli jails. Israel would also withdraw troops from populated areas.

Second phase

Implementation of the second phase would not begin until the sides conclude “indirect talks over the requirements needed to end the mutual military operations and return to complete calm”.

The second phase would include the release of remaining male hostages and “the withdrawal of Israeli forces outside the borders of all areas of the Gaza Strip”.

Bodies and remains would be exchanged during the third phase. The truce would also increase the flow of food and other aid to Gaza’s civilians, who are facing hunger and dire shortages of basic supplies.

“People are optimistic, at the same time they pray that this hope turns into a real agreement that will end the war,” Yamen Hamad, a father of four, living in a UN school in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip told Reuters via a messaging app.

In Rafah, on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where half of the enclave’s 2.3 million people are penned against the border fence with Egypt, the bodies of 10 people killed by Israeli strikes overnight were laid out in a hospital morgue. At least two of the shrouded bundles were the size of small children. Relatives wept beside the dead.

“Every visit from Blinken, instead of calming things down, it just makes things worse, we get more strikes, we get more bombing. And the USis the main participant and the head of the war against the Palestinian people,” mourner Mohammad Abundi said.

Israel began its military offensive after militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in southern Israel on October 7. Gaza’s Health Ministry says at least 27,585 Palestinians have been confirmed killed in Israel’s military campaign, with thousands more feared buried under rubble. So far, the only truce lasted just a week at the end of November.

Netanyahu is under competing pressure from far-right members of his coalition government who say they will quit rather than endorse any deal that fails to eradicate Hamas, and from families of hostages who demand a deal to bring them home.

Washington has cast the hostage and truce deal as part of plans for a wider resolution of the Middle East conflict, ultimately leading to reconciliation between Israel and Arab neighbours and the creation of a Palestinian state.

“We will be working as hard as we possibly can to try to get an agreement so that we can move forward with - not only a renewed but an expanded agreement on hostages - and all the benefits that that would bring with it” Blinken said at a news conference in Doha late on Tuesday.