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Hopes dampened for speedy Gaza ceasefire agreement

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• Egyptian media claims ‘significant progress’ on contentious points; Hamas, Israeli officials insist deadlock persists
• Tel Aviv prepares military operations in Rafah; US opposes the assault

GAZA STRIP: Israel and Hamas both dampened hopes on Monday of a speedy breakthrough in Cairo talks towards a Gaza truce and hostage release deal after Egyptian state-linked media had reported “significant progress”.

As the Gaza war raged on into a seventh month, Israel is under growing international pressure to agree to a ceasefire, including from its top ally and arms supplier the United States.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted on Sunday — half a year after the October 7 attack — that Israel is “one step away from victory” and has vowed to defeat remaining Hamas fighters in Gaza’s far-southern Rafah city.

On the same day, however, the army also announced it had pulled its forces out of southern Gaza, although military commanders stressed the withdrawal was tactical and did not signal an end to the war.

Rafah operations

Israeli leaders were preparing on Monday for military operations in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, where most of the Palestinian territory’s population has fled after six months of fighting.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the troops would “prepare for future missions, including … in Rafah” on the Egyptian border where almost 1.5 million Gazans live in crowded shelters and tents.

Israeli government spokesman Avi Hyman said: “I wouldn’t read too much into the fact that we’ve moved soldiers in or out of anywhere. I’ll remind everyone that we’re living in a tiny country, we can move soldiers in or out very easily and very quickly.”

The United States said it still opposed a major Israeli assault on Rafah, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a date for the attack was set. “We have made clear to Israel that we think a full-scale military invasion of Rafah would have an enormously harmful effect on those civilians and that it would ultimately hurt Israel’s security,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters when asked about Netanyahu’s remarks.

“It’s not just a question of Israel presenting a plan to us. We have made clear to them that we think that there is a better way to achieve what is a legitimate goal, which is to degrade and dismantle and defeat the Hamas battalions that still remain in Rafah,” Miller said.

Witnesses said that more Israeli air strikes and artillery fire hit central Gaza, including near Gaza City and in Deir al-Balah, as well as in Rafah in the south.

Amid the threats and ongoing fighting, Netanyahu has sent negotiators to fresh truce talks that started in Cairo on Sunday, joined by US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators.

US President Joe Biden sent CIA chief Bill Burns to the talks, three days after a terse phone call with Netanyahu in which Biden demanded a halt to the fighting and greater steps to help and protect Gaza civilians.

Egypt’s state-linked news outlet Al-Qahera reported “significant progress being made on several contentious points of agreement”, citing an unnamed high-ranking Egyptian source.

The Qatari and Hamas delegations had left Cairo and were expected to return “within two days to finalise the terms of the agreement”, it said, while the US and Israeli teams were also planning 48 hours of consultations.

However, Israel’s Ynet news outlet cited an unidentified Israeli official as tempering the upbeat Egyptian report and stressing that “we still don’t see a deal on the horizon”.

“The distance is still great and there has been nothing dramatic in the meantime,” the Israeli official was quoted as saying by the Hebrew-language website.

A separate senior Israeli official was quoted by Ynet as saying that “patience is needed. There is potential, but we are not there yet.”

A Hamas official said on Monday no progress was made at a new round of Gaza ceasefire talks in Cairo. “There is no change in the position of the occupation and, therefore, there is nothing new in the Cairo talks,” the Hamas official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. “There is no progress yet.”

Another senior Hamas official told AFP that “we cannot speak of concrete progress so far”, with disagreement centred on the pace of displaced Palestinians returning to Gaza City.

Netanyahu also faced pushback from one of the far-right allies he needs to maintain a parliamentary majority and stay in power, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

Ben Gvir warned on X, formerly Twitter, that “if the prime minister decides to end the war without an extensive attack on Rafah in order to defeat Hamas, he will not have a mandate to continue serving as prime minister”.

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2024

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