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US says Hamas and Israel's public positions on ceasefire do not reflect private talks

US scrambles to address new Israeli demands after Hamas says offensive on Gaza City could send deal back to 'square one'
White House national security communications advisor John Kirby takes questions during daily news briefing in Washington, on 2 April 2024 (Kent Nishimura/Getty Images/AFP)
White House national security communications advisor John Kirby takes questions during daily news briefing in Washington, on 2 April 2024 (Kent Nishimura/Getty Images/AFP)

Negotiations on reaching a ceasefire in Gaza faced more challenges on Monday after Israel launched a new offensive on Gaza City, where Palestinians have reported ferocious Israeli bombardment.

Hamas released a statement quoting the group’s political chief, Ismail Haniyeh, saying that the assault "could bring the negotiation process back to square one. Netanyahu and his army will bear full responsibility for the collapse of this path”.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu published demands that any hostage deal with Hamas would not prevent Israel from restarting fighting in the besieged enclave, and also that the deal would prevent the smuggling of weapons from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula into Gaza.

Netanyahu’s new demands, along with Israel’s intense bombardment, dealt a blow to the US’s claim last week that mediators had reached “a breakthrough” on months-long talks.

A Hamas statement further added that Netanyahu was placing hurdles in front of ceasefire negotiations and called on mediators to intervene against what it called "manoeuvres and crimes" by Netanyahu.

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"We've been working this very, very hard. And there are still some gaps that remain in the two sides in the positions, but we wouldn't have sent a team over there if we didn't think that we had a shot here,” White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Monday, referring to a team of US officials in Egypt for peace talks.

In a sign that the US believes there is a window for a deal, the White House dispatched two of Biden’s top confidantes, CIA director Bill Burns and the Middle East director at the National Security Council, Brett McGurk, to meet Egyptian, Israeli and Jordanian officials in Egypt, Kirby added.

Kirby also appeared to take aim at hardline statements from both Hamas and Israel, saying that “on both sides, you see public comments that are not necessarily fully reflective of the private conversations we are having with them or with their interlocutors”.

Egypt border smuggling

Netanyahu’s new demand that any agreement addresses securing the border between Gaza and Egypt's Sinai will likely mean the US needs to mediate between Israel and the Egyptian military during a time of frayed ties. 

Israel’s repeated accusations that Egypt failed to prevent the smuggling of weapons by Hamas particularly rattled Cairo’s defence establishment and rank-and-file military officers.

Middle East Eye reported in May that Egypt's former Defence Minister Mohamed Zaki threatened to resign over Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's handling of the Gaza war. Sisi unveiled a new cabinet last week, with General Abdel Majeed Saqr, the former governor of Suez, as defence chief. 

In a bid to smooth over tensions between Israel and Egypt before the former’s seizure of the Rafah border crossing in May, the US deployed technical teams to address the Israeli allegations inside Sinai. Israel seized the crossing anyway. 

Resentment against US grows in Egypt's defence establishment as Rafah heats up
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Axios reported that after the talks in Cairo, McGurk will travel to Israel to meet Netanyahu and Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. 

Burns will be dispatched to Doha to meet on Wednesday with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani, Egypt’s spy chief Abbas Kamel and Mossad director David Barnea.

Down to the wire talks come as the risk of war between Hezbollah and Israel rises and the death toll in Gaza continues to climb, with the Palestinian health ministry saying the total killed now stands at 38,152, and are mainly women and children.

letter written by experts and published in the medical journal, The Lancet, warns that the actual death toll of Palestinians killed in Gaza could exceed 186,000, underscoring the staggering toll of Israel’s bombardment of the enclave.

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