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Egypt remains primary mediator as conflicting reports of new truce emerge

Analysts are sceptical of a successful truce after Hamas official rejects reports of a new Egyptian-mediated ceasefire proposal
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and head of the political bureau of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal in Doha on 5 May (AFP).

Egyptian mediators have proposed a new ceasefire agreement in Gaza that would open the blockaded enclave's crossings and allow in aid and reconstruction materials, a senior Palestinian official said on Monday.

"There is an idea for a temporary ceasefire that opens the crossings, allows in aid and reconstruction material, and the disputed points will be discussed in a month," the Palestinian official said.

The Palestinian negotiating team has agreed to the proposal, the source added, "without any reservations on the part of any of the Palestinian factions."

The Palestinians, including the de facto Hamas rulers of the enclave, would be willing to accept the deal if Israel does, the official told AFP.

The source added that Egyptian mediators were currently awaiting Israeli approval of the proposal, after which they plan to formally announce it on Monday evening.

It would then go into effect on Tuesday morning, according to the source.

Israeli media, meanwhile, confirmed that the Israeli government had received an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire but had yet to respond to it.

"If the proposal is approved, it would be in return for opening the Rafah border crossing [between Egypt and Gaza] to Palestinians and the expansion of the fishing area [to Gaza fisherman]," Israel's Walla news website quoted an Israeli security official as saying.

However, the official added, "The Israeli leadership has yet to approve the Egyptian proposal."

However, a Hamas official has reportedly rejected talk of a new truce agreement.

"There is no new Egyptian initiative on the table for a ceasefire in Gaza," Hamas spokesperson Abu Marzouk is quoted as saying by Israeli Army Radio.

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal ruled out a return to talks on Sunday saying "resistance" is the only way to achieve their goals.

Egypt an important player

A previous ceasefire agreement to end the devastating conflict in Gaza collapsed on 19 August after Egyptian mediators were unable to bridge the gaps between the two sides.

Analysts have said that while an Egyptian-mediated initiative has been unsuccessful so far, Egypt remains an important player in the negotiations and cannot be side-lined.

“The idea that Egypt be side-lined is wishful thinking. Hamas may not see Egypt as an honest broker. It is not however only about an honest, but a relevant broker which can deliver some of the things that Hamas wants,” said Yossi Mekelberg, Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House.

“Egypt controls the southern border of Gaza. It has to be party to any agreement that involves the opening of access to and from Gaza through the Rafah crossing,” said Michelle Dunne, senior associate in Carnegie's Middle East Program.

Analysts also believe that Egypt not only has leverage in terms of the Rafah border crossing, but also maintains a geopolitically strategic position both in the region and globally, which makes its role imperative for a mediated ceasefire to continue to hold.

“Egypt is the only country that can possibly guarantee an agreement. It is a country that Israel seems to be happy with, Egypt has good relations with the Ramallah-based leadership of the Palestinian government and also has the support of Saudi Arabia and the US,” said Daud Kuttab, Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and Palestinian journalist.

Qatar and Turkey have also played important roles in the early ceasefire talks to end the conflict are seen as having important support roles to the talks but not as alternatives to Egypt, analysts have said. Some observers point to the geopolitical context of the Gaza crisis playing into complicating matters further and potentially further extending the violence from both sides.

“Qatar has relations with Hamas, but Israel doesn’t want to reward Hamas. Israel wants a party that has some sort of leverage over Hamas without being too close to it, giving it [Hamas] the legitimacy it wants,” said Kuttab.

“Qatar doesn’t want Mashaal to give Egypt this diplomatic victory. That’s why the conflict is going on for so long. Hamas and Israel are proxies to a regional conflict. Egypt on one hand has a proposal which dictates to Hamas what to do… while Hamas, with the backing of Qatar, don’t want to see Egypt with a diplomatic victory,” said Daniel Nisman, an Israeli independent journalist and political commentator.

Previous truce failures have prompted analysts to be skeptical of the success of this ceasefire initiative, if reports of its existence are confirmed.

“Hamas has the capacity to fight for another few months and Israel doesn’t want to cave in to them,” said Nisman.

“Egypt will not put forth a proposal on the table if it thinks that Hamas will benefit from it. That’s why the conflict will continue to drag on until Hamas is weakened to the extent where it will accept a bad proposal by Egypt,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Israel would not be worn down by persistent rocket fire and that the operation would not end until quiet was restored.

"Our enemies... will not succeed in wearing us down. Against their attrition, they will be struck very hard," he said on Sunday, warning that Israel would hit any place from which militants were firing, including homes.

His remarks came as the air force stepped up its campaign against rocket fire, firing missiles which leveled a 12-storey residential block in the Gaza Strip.

Unity deal at stake

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas held talks with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on 21 August in Doha, hosted by Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, a key backer of Hamas, the Gulf state's QNA news agency reported.

A Palestinian delegate had told AFP after the talks which lasted nearly three hours, that a two-way meeting between Abbas and Meshaal, was expected to follow.

However, no further reports were conveyed about this meeting taking place while an informed source in Doha told MEE that the meeting did not go well with Meshaal furious at Abbas for the continued crackdown on West Bank protesters supportive of Gaza.

At the same time, the source also said that while Meshaal demanded a deadline as to when Abbas would sign the Rome Treaty, Abbas raised claims of a Hamas-led coup against the Palestinian authority in the West Bank.

While little is known about details of the closed-door negotiations, there have been ongoing speculations that the unity deal could be at stake.

The unity deal just about exists, but there are bad feelings between Abbas and Hamas, the Doha-based MEE source said.

Shin Bet, the Israeli security service, announced on 19 August that it had foiled a plot by Hamas to undermine the Palestinian unity government by toppling Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank.

Abbas indicated the reports could severely impact the unity pact signed between Fatah and Hamas in June, saying it represents “a grave threat to the unity of the Palestinian people and its future,” the Palestinian news Agency Wafa reported on 19 August.

Violence continues 

The conflict, now in its 49th day, has killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and 68 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Hamas has insisted that any long-term truce must end the eight-year blockade of Gaza and allow for an airport in the coastal strip that is flanked by Israel and Egypt.

Israel says it wants Hamas, which it, the United States and European Union consider a terrorist organisation, to disarm, something the militants have refused to discuss.

Violence reverberated across Gaza on Monday with four Palestinians killed in Israeli air strikes.

Since the earlier ceasefire collapsed, the death toll in Gaza has risen steadily with 106 Palestinians killed in more than 350 Israeli air strikes across the territory.

Over the same period, more than 650 rockets have struck Israeli territory. Around 100 rockets were shot down.

Since midnight, Israeli air strikes on northern Gaza have killed four Palestinians, including two women and a three-year-old boy, medics said, raising the Palestinian death toll to 2,124 in seven weeks of violence.

Another 38 rockets fired from Gaza struck the Israeli south on Sunday, while another was shot down, army statistics showed.