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Saturday, March 02, 2024  
20 Shaban 1445  

Hamas official says it has received new proposal for three-stage truce

Civilian hostages to be released in first stage, then soldiers, then bodies of the dead
Senior Hamas leaders, Yahya Sinwar (3rd R), Ismail Haniyeh (4th R) sit among other Hamas officials. AFP
Senior Hamas leaders, Yahya Sinwar (3rd R), Ismail Haniyeh (4th R) sit among other Hamas officials. AFP

Hamas said on Tuesday it had received and was studying a new proposal for a ceasefire and release of hostages in Gaza, presented by mediators after talks with Israel, in what appeared to be the most serious peace initiative for months.

A senior Hamas official said the proposal involved a three-stage truce, during which the group would first release remaining civilians among hostages it captured on Oct 7, then soldiers, and finally the bodies of hostages that were killed.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not indicate how long the three stages would last or what was envisioned to follow the final stage.

But it was the first time since the collapse of the only brief truce of the war so far, in late November, that details were released of a new proposal being considered by both sides.

The ceasefire proposal followed talks in Paris involving CIA Director William Burns, Qatar’s prime minister, the chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service and the head of Egyptian intelligence.

In a mark of the seriousness of the negotiations, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said he was going to Cairo to discuss it, his first public trip there for more than a month.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his vow not to pull troops out of Gaza until “total victory”, a reminder of the huge gap in the public stances of the warring sides about what it would take to halt combat even temporarily.

Hamas, whose fighters precipitated the war by storming into Israeli towns on Oct 7 killing 1,200 people and capturing 253 hostages, says it will release its remaining captives only as part of a wider deal to end the war permanently.

Israel, which has killed more than 26,000 Palestinians so far in a war that has devastated the enclave, says it will not stop fighting until the militant group which has ruled Gaza since 2007 is entirely eradicated.

Netanyahu is under pressure from Israel’s closest ally the United States to chart a clear path towards ending the war, and domestically from relatives of hostages who worry that negotiations are the only way to bring them home. But far-right parties in his ruling coalition say they will quit rather than endorse a deal to free hostages that left Hamas intact.

Hospital raid

The diplomatic advances were announced hours after Israeli commandos, disguised as medical workers and Muslim women, stormed into a hospital in the West Bank in an undercover raid. They killed three Palestinian militants, including a paralysed fighter shot dead on the bed where he was being treated.

In Gaza itself, there was intense fighting in both the northern and southern halves of the enclave, with battle resuming in the north even as Israeli forces are trying to storm the main southern city Khan Younis.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli troops advancing in Khan Younis stormed the hospital where the rescue service has its headquarters, and ordered staff and displaced civilians out at gunpoint. Israel denied this.

Reuters could not independently verify either account.

Fighting intensified around Gaza’s largest hospital still in service, the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, which is surrounded by Israeli troops, the World Health Organization said.

Hamas leader Haniyeh said he was studying the ceasefire proposal. The priority for Hamas was to end the Israeli offensive - now in its fourth month - and secure a full pull-out of Israeli forces from Gaza, Haniyeh said.

Netanyahu, speaking during a visit to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, said: “We will not compromise on anything less than total victory.”

“That means eliminating Hamas, returning all of our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel.”

Until then no Palestinian prisoners will be freed from Israeli jails, Netanyahu said.

Sami Abu Zuhri, another senior Hamas official, said Netanyahu’s comments “prove he isn’t interested in the success of the Paris meeting and doesn’t care about (Israeli) prisoners’ lives”.

Dressed as medics

In the raid at the Ibn Sina hospital in the West Bank city of Jenin, about a dozen troops, including three in women’s garb and two dressed as Palestinian medical staff, paced through a corridor with rifles, CCTV footage showed.

Hamas said one of the men killed was a Hamas member. Islamic Jihad said the other two killed were brothers who belonged to it. Ibn Sina said one of the brothers had been receiving treatment for an injury that paralysed his legs.

The Israeli military said one of the men was armed, and one was planning an attack on Israel similar to Oct 7 from inside the hospital. It said the incident showed militants were using civilian areas and hospitals as shelters and “human shields”.

But Palestinian officials said the three were not engaged in fighting, and called the raid a violation of humanitarian law which protects hospitals treating wounded combatants.

The Israeli undercover squad broke into the hospital, headed to the third floor and killed them using silenced pistols, hospital sources said.

“They executed the three men as they slept in the room… in cold blood, by firing bullets directly into their heads inside the room, where they were being treated,” hospital director Najy Nazzal said.

In Rafah, on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials held a mass burial on Tuesday for around 100 unidentified bodies handed over by Israel, including some believed to have been dug up from cemeteries by advancing Israel troops.

Issa Abu Sarhan had come to look for his son among the corpses.

“I had buried my son in Al-Nimsawi cemetery in Khan Younis, and I heard that the Jews took the bodies from the cemetery, so I came here when I heard that bodies had been received to search for my son,” he said.

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