Frantic efforts behind closed doors led to truce deal

Published November 23, 2023
A child looks at the rubble of a house after an Israeli 
strike in Khan Yunis, on Wednesday.—AFP
A child looks at the rubble of a house after an Israeli strike in Khan Yunis, on Wednesday.—AFP

• Qatar asked ‘secret cell’ to handle negotiations carefully, says US official
• Prisoners expected to be transported through Egypt

WASHINGTON: A secret cell headed by the CIA and Mossad chiefs, and multiple contacts between US President Joe Biden and leaders of Israel, Qatar, and Egypt underpinned an “excruciating” five weeks resulting in the truce agreement, a US official said.

In a detailed account to reporters by a senior US official, a picture has emerged of a tense international effort beset by sudden communication cutoffs with Hamas, disputes over prisoners lists, and safety concerns on the ground.

The US official said the “extremely excruciating five-week process” of negotiations began with a call from Qatar to Washington and the Israelis, in a bid to free some of the prisoners taken by Hamas during the Oct 7 raid.

Qatar, which brokered the agreement, “asked that a cell be established to work on the issue very carefully, very secretly, together with the Israelis”, the US official said.

Qatar hosts a Hamas political office, and has behind-the-scenes diplomatic links with Israel. Biden administration officials were having “daily, sometimes hourly, senior level of engagement with Qatar, with Egypt and with Israel on the issue of the hostages,” according to the official.

The release of two American citizens on October 20 was seen as “a pilot process” for the overall negotiations, the official said. “We were able to track, kind of in real time, the (hostages) as they moved from Gaza, ultimately across the border and into freedom,” the American said.

Their safe return “gave us some confidence that… Qatar really could deliver through the cell that we had established.”

Biden ‘engaged daily’

Soon, Mossad director David Barnea and CIA chief William Burns were also deeply involved. A flurry of phone calls between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed on Oct 20, 22, 23 and 25.

Biden “was engaged daily as extremely difficult talks and proposals were traded back and forth,” the official said, noting that discussions centered around transportation corridors, surveillance and timeframes. Hamas came under intense pressure to produce a list of prisoners.

Communication proved difficult as messages had to pass from Doha or Cairo into Gaza and back.

By Oct 25, Hamas was saying it could guarantee about 50 releases in the first phase, but their formal list had just 10 names.

On Nov 9, the CIA’s Burns rushed to Doha to help thrash out a deal text, but the identification of hostages remained a sticking point.

Biden called the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, on Nov 12 and “made very clear that where we were being not enough,” the US official said.

Shortly afterwards, Hamas produced the identifying criteria for the 50 prisoners.

As Israel’s bombing of Gaza intensified and civilian deaths soared, Biden called Netanyahu on Nov 14 urging him to “move forward with this deal,” and the prime minister ultimately agreed, the official said.

But suddenly, with a deal in sight that day, “everything stalled again,” the US official said. Hamas had broken off talks.

Biden called the Qatari emir on Nov 17, according to the official, to make clear the deal “had to close.” Two days later, the Americans met with Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and received assurances from Hamas “closing the gaps,” the US official said.

Salient points

Hamas said Israel had agreed to halt air traffic over the north of Gaza from 8am GMT until 2pm GMT each day of the truce and to halt all air traffic over the south for the entire period.

The group said Israel agreed not to attack or arrest anyone in Gaza, and people can move freely along Salah al-Din Street, the main road along which many Palestinians have fled northern Gaza where Israel launched its ground invasion.

Qatar’s chief negotiator in ceasefire talks, Minister of State at the Foreign Ministry Mohammed Al-Khulaifi, said that under the deal there would be “no attack whatsoever. No military movements, no expansion, nothing.” He said Qatar hoped it would “be a seed to a bigger agreement and a permanent cease of fire.”

The truce could start as early as 8am GMT on Thursday. The International Committee of the Red Cross will work in Gaza to facilitate the release of the prisoners, Qatar said.

The prisoners are expected to be transported through Egypt. During the truce, trucks loaded with aid and fuel are also expected to cross into the beseiged territory.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2023

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