Talks on Gaza ceasefire and hostage release deal reach critical point

Israeli troops depart from Khan Younis, leaving only single infantry brigade backed by tanks

Talks on a ceasefire in the Gaza war and a hostage release deal have reached a critical juncture as the parties await a Hamas response to the latest compromise proposals amid cautious optimism from Egyptian and Qatari mediators.

Pressure from the US, frustrated with foot-dragging from both Israel and the militant group Hamas, resulted in a new draft framework being presented at top-level talks in Cairo at the weekend that reportedly included greater Israeli flexibility on the return of displaced residents of northern Gaza to their homes.

At the same time there was progress on two issues that are key elements of an overall ceasefire deal in the six-month-old war: reduction of Israeli forces in Gaza and an increase in humanitarian aid arriving in the coastal enclave.

Israeli troops departed from Khan Younis on Sunday, leaving only a single infantry brigade, backed by tanks, inside the coastal strip to secure a narrow corridor that divides northern and southern Gaza.


Aid deliveries have also increased significantly over the last few days following US pressure to ease the dire humanitarian crisis, including via Israel’s Ashdod port and the Erez crossing and via overland convoys from Jordan.

However, despite the optimistic noises from mediators Hamas officials cautioned on Monday that there was still no agreement and accused Israel of failing to commit to a permanent ceasefire.

Thousands of displaced Khan Younis residents returned on Monday to the southern city to witness destruction on a massive scale. It is believed that more than half the buildings in Khan Younis have been destroyed or damaged, and some residents likened the scenes to cities hit by an earthquake.

Hamas wasted no time in reassuming its presence in Khan Younis following the Israeli military withdrawal, seizing control of aid lorries and assuming responsibility for the firing of rockets at southern Israel from the city. Israeli fighter jets destroyed three rocket launchers used by Hamas, and the army said pinpoint aerial and artillery strikes would continue wherever Hamas targets were identified despite the withdrawal of troops.

Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant said Israel was now at an opportune moment for a hostage release deal. “The operational conditions that the army created using unrelenting military pressure on Hamas allow us flexibility, freedom of action and also to make difficult decisions to get the hostages back,” he said.

Ahead of a possible agreement the two far-right parties in prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition threatened to dismantle the government.

National security minister Itamar Ben- Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party, said if Mr Netanyahu decided to end the war without a major strike on the southern city of Rafah in order to defeat Hamas he would not have a mandate to continue to serve as prime minister.

In a statement late on Monday, however, Mr Netanyahu said an assault on Rafah would take place and a date had been set. “Victory requires entering Rafah and eliminating the terrorist battalions there,” he said.

Finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party, convened an urgent party faction meeting and demanded a meeting of the security cabinet to discuss the latest developments. The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.

The families of the 133 hostages held in Hamas captivity addressed the comments made by far-right ministers, saying in a statement: “The absolute victory will be achieved with a deal now and not in Rafah.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who met with senior US officials in Washington on Monday, promised Mr Netanyahu backing for a deal.

More than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry there, since Israel launched its offensive in response to the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7th, in which 1,200 people were killed and more than 250 taken hostage, according to Israel. More than 130 hostages remain unaccounted for.

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem