Negotiators scramble to rescue Gaza hostage talks after deadly convoy incident

Debris fills a living room in Rafah following Israeli bombardment. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Debris fills a living room in Rafah following Israeli bombardment. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Summary

Efforts to pause the fighting and free Hamas’s captives hang by a thread following the deaths of scores of Palestinians during an aid delivery.

Negotiators are meeting in Cairo in a bid to rescue a plan to pause fighting in Gaza for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan after a mission to deliver aid went horribly wrong, resulting in scores of Gazan deaths and threats by Hamas to pull out of the talks.

With Israeli officials landing in the Egyptian capital on Saturday and a delegation from Hamas and Qatar expected to arrive Sunday, talks are expected to kick into high gear. Both Israel and Hamas are trying to strike a truce that would involve the exchange of dozens of Israeli hostages for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners over the course of a 40-day cease-fire, but several factors threaten to derail an agreement.

Thursday’s deadly events near an aid convoy in northern Gaza, which health officials in the strip say killed more than 100 Palestinians, have sapped momentum for talks in recent days. Hamas said Israel, whose military oversaw the aid delivery, was attempting to evade responsibility for what it called the systematic killing of Palestinians. Israel said it killed fewer than 10 people when its troops shot at a crowd of Palestinians, and that many were killed by Palestinian gunmen or trampled to death in the chaos of the moment.

The two sides were still racing to bridge their differences, however, as their previous framework for a deal set a deadline of around March 10, the beginning of Ramadan. Hamas officials have told negotiators that in the coming days they may propose new figures for how many Palestinian prisoners they expect to receive in exchange for roughly 40 Israeli hostages. Israel meanwhile is expected on Saturday to deliver a list of high-profile Palestinian prisoners whom it won’t release.

The talks are unfolding as tensions simmer across the region. The Israeli military said on Saturday that it struck a vehicle in southern Lebanon carrying a number of militants who launched rockets into Israel. They were operating for Shiite militant group Hezbollah, it said.

The U.S., Egypt and Qatar are also working hard to keep talks on track by providing Gaza with more humanitarian aid in the coming days. The hope is to address both the prospect of famine across the strip and appease Hamas, which has repeatedly said cease-fire negotiations depend on increased aid, especially to the northern half of the strip.

The U.S. is expected to airdrop aid in the coming days and is also increasing pressure on Israel to support more deliveries, President Biden said Friday. He added that the U.S. will insist Israel facilitate more aid trucks and more routes to get supplies to Gazans. Egypt airdropped 6.7 tons of aid in northern Gaza on Saturday, according to Egyptian officials.

Both plans follow a joint Jordanian mission with Egypt, Qatar, France and the U.A.E., in which Jordanian King Abdullah II boarded a military aircraft to help drop tons of food parcels along the Gaza coast.

The latest framework being discussed in Cairo involves exchanging about 400 Palestinian prisoners for 40 of the hostages still held captive in Gaza, including five female Israeli soldiers.

One of the main sticking points is the extent to which Israel will allow Palestinians in southern Gaza to return to the north during a potential truce. In the negotiations, Israeli officials said they would let displaced women and children return but would hold back most of the male population, according to Egyptian officials.

The war in Gaza began with Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, which killed about 1,200 people, according to Israel. Israel responded with bombing and a ground operation that together have killed more than 30,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to Palestinian health authorities, whose figures don’t distinguish between civilians and militants. Over the course of the nearly five months, most of the population of Gaza has been pushed to the southern city of Rafah, where Israel has also said it would conduct a military operation.

In Cairo, Israel, Hamas and their mediators will be hashing out how Israel might deliver 500 aid trucks a day and set up 200,000 tents and 60,000 caravans as temporary housing for displaced Palestinians. The current proposal says this should be done during the first phase of the truce, which is about 40 days.

Egyptian intelligence officials told their Israeli and U.S. counterparts that they have recently had trouble contacting Hamas’s Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, to get him to sign off on a possible deal or a list of hostages. As a way to get Sinwar to re-engage, Egypt asked Israeli and American officials to agree to pause fighting before the release of Israeli hostages.

The Cairo meetings show how a potential cease-fire isn’t out of reach, despite both Israel and Hamas digging into their usual positions in public. “We face a brick wall of delusional, unrealistic Hamas demands," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a Thursday news conference. Hamas, he said, “knows its demands are delusional and is not even trying to move close to an area of agreement."

On the other side, senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan maintained that Israel’s priority was to continue fighting in Gaza. “The Israelis are still obstructing the negotiation process and trying to gain more time," he said Friday on Al Jazeera television.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this article.

Write to Summer Said at summer.said@wsj.com and Chao Deng at chao.deng@wsj.com

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