Ceasefire negotiations stall


What’s happened: After what had initially appeared to be a promising week of negotiations, talks between Israel and Hamas have now stalled.

  • While Israel is understood to have agreed in principle to a six-week ceasefire in exchange for the release of elderly, unwell, and female hostages, Hamas refused to provide a list of those who are still alive.
  • While talks including a Hamas delegation continue in Cairo, Israel has not sent a delegation of negotiators given Hamas’s unsatisfactory response.
  • Israeli officials said that Sinwar’s refusal to provide the required information stems from his “desire to set fire to the ground and to cause bloodshed during Ramadan.”
  • It is still hoped that a ceasefire agreement can be reached by the end of the first weekend of Ramadan, but pathways to a deal appear increasingly limited, with the prospects of a breakthrough diminishing.
  • On Sunday, a senior Hamas official claimed, “If Israel agrees to Hamas demands, which include the return of displaced Palestinians to northern Gaza and increasing humanitarian aid, that would pave the way for a (truce) agreement within the next 24 to 48 hours”. Israel has not commented on this suggestion.
  • An unnamed Hamas official has also told the Wall Street Journal that, “while there is slow progress on an agreement for a temporary ceasefire and hostage deal, it seems unlikely that it will be reached before Ramadan’s expected start on March 10, and instead may come to fruition by the first weekend of the Muslim holy month”.
  • It has also been suggested by Egyptian and Qatari sources that there has been no contact from Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar, for at least a week, which may be further hampering and slowing hostage release efforts.
  • US Vice President, Kamala Harris, called yesterday for an “immediate ceasefire” given “the immense scale of suffering in Gaza”. While reiterating her desire to see hostages released and reunited with their families, she also condemned Israel for not doing enough to ease a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the current administration’s strongest comments since 7th October.

Context:  While a ceasefire and hostage release deal remains possible, its likelihood is diminishing given Hamas’s intransigence and refusal to provide Israel with a list of living hostages.

  • 130 hostages remain unaccounted for, with Israel saying that at least 29 were dead on 13th February. Three hostages have been rescued by Israel’s security forces, 105 were released during a ceasefire in November, and four prior to that. Securing all hostages is Israel’s joint primary stated war aim along with destroying Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
  • Fellow members of Israel’s war cabinet are said to have criticised Prime Minister Netanyahu for insisting on the names of surviving hostages as a precondition of negotiations. They argue that the list of hostages could have been discussed toward the end of the negotiations, as was the case in the previous deal.
  • Senior Egyptian sources claim that both Egypt and Qatar are putting strong pressure on Hamas to provide the names of hostages to be released in a first round of releases.
  • Egypt is also said to have made clear to Khalil al-Hayya, who is heading Hamas’s delegation, that it is difficult to hold talks and make progress when Hamas is split between its political leadership overseas and its leadership in Gaza.
  • Egyptian, Qatari, and Israeli officials have suggested that Hamas’s Gazan leader Yahya Sinwar is wilfully delaying a deal in the hope that an Israeli action in Rafah, Hamas’s last Gazan stronghold, would lead to a flare-up in the West Bank and among Israeli Arabs.  A senior Israeli official said that, “Sinwar prefers to escalate tensions in the Middle East, causing chaos and bloodshed on Ramadan, over the alternative of a six-week cease-fire and humanitarian aid that would significantly alleviate the suffering of Gaza’s local population”.
  • Qatar is a longstanding supporter of Hamas, yet has also maintained an unofficial but productive relationship with Israel since at least 1996. Doha has frequently acted as an intermediary between Israel and Hamas, and played a critical role in mediating and brokering more recent negotiations along with Egypt.
  • In these negotiations, Qatar and Egypt, have acted as a mutually acceptable touchpoint with strong oversight by the CIA’s Bill Burns. Both Israel and Hamas can advise of their negotiating position, as well as relaying messages between the two parties.
  • The US remains deeply concerned by both Hamas’s holding of hostages, as well as the worsening humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. By facilitating a ceasefire, it hopes to secure both the release of as many hostages as possible, as well as an increased flow of aid into the Gaza Strip.

Looking ahead: If fighting continues into Ramadan, it is likely that Hamas will attempt to escalate hostilities into the West Bank, as well as encourage Hezbollah to intensify its own attacks on Israel.

  • Given their keenness to prevent further regional conflict, the US will almost certainly continue all sides to agree to a ceasefire. War Cabinet member Minister Gantz arrives in the US for talks with senior officials today. (For more detail, including Netanyahu’s opposition to this visit, see Israeli Media Summary below.)
  • Defence Minister Gallant had previously set a deadline of March 10th for hostages to be released. Failing that, he pledged that Israel would intensify operations in Rafah.