Middle EastAnalysis

Talks on Gaza ceasefire are stuck despite intense pressure from Washington

Events may favour Hamas as Israel’s defence forces are bogged down in Gaza and Israel has never been more isolated internationally

Israeli soldiers on patrol along Israel's southern border with the Gaza Strip. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP

It took Hamas almost two weeks to respond to the latest Israeli proposal for a Gaza ceasefire and hostage release deal, the main elements of which were outlined by US president Joe Biden on May 31st.

The response dealt a blow to those who were hoping for a breakthrough that could kick start a process leading to the end of the war, now in its ninth month, with more than 37,000 residents of Gaza killed (along with 1,200 in Israel) and up to 120 hostages still in Hamas activity.

Hamas claimed it had “dealt positively with the latest proposal to reach a ceasefire”, expressing doubt over Israel’s willingness to end the fighting. “While [US secretary of state Antony] Blinken continues to talk about Israel’s approval of the latest proposal we have not heard any Israeli official voicing approval,” Hamas said in a statement.

There is also opposition from the far-right in Netanyahu’s coalition to the current draft, but the religious parties back a deal and the opposition has promised a parliamentary safety net for any deal that will bring the hostages home.

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Reacting to the Hamas response, Blinken, speaking in Qatar, said Hamas had suggested “numerous changes” to the ceasefire draft, only some of which were workable. He said some of Hamas’s proposals went beyond what the group had previously accepted.

Despite the setback Blinken insisted the talks would continue, saying Washington was determined to try to bridge the gap between the two sides.

But it is clear the talks are stuck and, essentially, have been stuck for months. On the night of the Hamas attack on October 7th, the leader of the Hamas political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, said the hostages taken then would be returned only when Israel committed to ending the war. More than 100 hostages were released in November, but since then, despite intense pressure from Washington, in tandem with Egyptian and Qatari mediators, there has been little progress towards a comprehensive settlement.

In an official statement Israel said Hamas in its response “was rejecting the proposal outlined by the US president”.

There is a growing voice of opinion in Israel arguing that Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, does not actually seek an end to the fighting. Events are playing into his hands. The Israel defence forces are bogged down in the Gaza quagmire, with prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s dream of “total victory” nowhere in sight. Israel has never been more isolated in the international arena, with weekly protests continuing in western capitals.

The biggest prize for Hamas – the opening of a second front on Israel’s border with Lebanon – seems closer now than at any time since October 7th, with Hizbullah on Thursday firing hundreds of projectiles into Israel for the second consecutive day, increasing the pressure on the Netanyahu government to declare war.

Despite the death and destruction in Gaza the popularity of Hamas on the Palestinian street remains high, with more than 60 per cent support in the West Bank, according to a recent survey. No credible Palestinian alternative has emerged to take control of Gaza.

Hamas spokespeople like to compare the war in Gaza to the conflicts in Algeria, Vietnam and Afghanistan. That raises the prospect that many more years of conflict and many more casualties may lie ahead.