Israel-Hamas ceasefire talks: What we know about the proposal

A deal will still be tough.

A dense crowd of protesters seen from above. One sign reads, “bring them home.”

During a demonstration against the Israeli government, protesters hold flags and signs calling for a hostages deal with Hamas on May 4, 2024, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Amir Levy/Getty Images Joshua Keating is a senior correspondent at Vox covering foreign policy and world news with a focus on the future of international conflict. He is the author of the 2018 book, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, an exploration of border conflicts, unrecognized countries, and changes to the world map.

The war in Gaza hangs in the balance this week as Israel ramps up for what many predict could be the bloodiest battle of the war, while at the same time, a ceasefire deal to end the fighting — at least temporarily — looks more possible than it has in months.

On Monday, the political dynamics of the conflict shifted dramatically when Hamas announced it had accepted a draft proposal for a ceasefire and hostage release deal that had been negotiated in Cairo with Egyptian and Qatari mediators. The announcement was greeted with celebrations in the streets of Rafah and demonstrations across Israel calling on the government to take the deal and secure the release of the hostages. But the excitement was short-lived, as Israeli officials quickly said the deal was significantly different from an earlier draft they had found acceptable, and that it had been “softened” during the negotiating process in Hamas’s favor.

Even as the negotiations continued, the Israeli Defense Forces pressed on with its Rafah operations, launching a volley of strikes at the city and seizing control of the Rafah border crossing into Egypt. The actions were what many fear is the opening stage of a long-anticipated offensive into the densely packed city, the last section of the enclave outside the IDF’s direct control.

But in a sign that diplomacy has not been abandoned entirely, Israel’s war cabinet also dispatched a delegation of mediators to Cairo “to exhaust the possibility of reaching an agreement under conditions acceptable to Israel.” (Israeli negotiators had not been present when the latest proposal was drafted.) It has also reportedly agreed to keep its operations in Rafah limited to taking control of the area’s border crossing, rather than launching an all-out ground assault — at least for the time being.

On Tuesday, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby struck an optimistic note on a call with reporters, saying that a “close assessment of the two sides’ positions suggests that they should be able to close the remaining gaps.” That assessment is not shared by the Israelis, who say the gaps between the two sides are still wide.

As of now, there are more questions than answers about what may be the last chance for the foreseeable future to stop a war in Gaza that has killed more than 30,000 people.

How did this happen?

Just three days ago, the ceasefire talks appeared to be on the verge of collapse. Israel did not even send a delegation to the talks over the weekend, which, in addition to Hamas, included the Egyptians, Qataris, and a US delegation led by CIA director William Burns. (The US does not negotiate directly with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization, but communicates its positions and proposals to the group through the intermediaries.) When the latest round of talks began over the weekend, Hamas had not yet issued a response to the latest ceasefire proposal, which had been pushed aggressively by the US and had been agreed to by Israel, according to media reports.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had vowed to move ahead with plans for a ground incursion into Rafah, which Israel describes as Hamas’s last holdout, but where around 1.5 million Palestinians displaced from the fighting have taken refuge.

All indications were that the two sides were not actually interested in a ceasefire. On Sunday, Hamas launched a rocket and mortar attack on a border crossing between Gaza and Israel. On Monday, Israel ordered a partial evacuation of about 110,000 people as its warplanes struck targets around Rafah.

So it came as something of a bolt out of the blue on Monday when Hamas agreed to a ceasefire proposal, even if it wasn’t the same one the Israelis had agreed to.

“Hamas’ acceptance of a deal that Israel says was not on the table certainly seems to have taken Israel by surprise, and also seems to have successfully forced Netanyahu’s hand by getting him to send a negotiating team to Cairo, which he had been refusing to do previously.” Michael Koplow, an expert on Israeli politics and chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum, told Vox.

What’s on the table?

The previous and only ceasefire of this war, in November 2023, lasted for a week and saw the release of 105 Israeli hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners. The main division now between the two sides — and one that may be irreconcilable — is that Hamas is seeking a permanent end to the fighting and the withdrawal of Israeli troops, while Israel wants only another temporary ceasefire in exchange for the return of hostages, and remains committed to continuing its military operation until Hamas is wiped out.

The Egyptian-Qatari proposal attempts to fudge this divide by separating the ceasefire into three phases. In the first phase, which would last for six weeks, fighting would be suspended, the IDF would withdraw from parts of Gaza, and a prisoner exchange process would begin. Hamas would release 33 Israeli hostages, three at a time — starting with women, young people, older people, and ill hostages.

In return for each hostage, Israel would release a certain number of Palestinian prisoners depending on various criteria. (For instance, according to one reported draft, Israel would release 40 Palestinian women prisoners for every female IDF soldier released.) Israel had previously insisted on 40 hostages being released in the initial phase, but it’s not clear if enough of the 128 remaining hostages who meet the criteria for transfer are actually still alive.

In the text of the Hamas-agreed draft, published by Al Jazeera on Monday, this hostage-release scheme is pretty similar to what Israel reportedly agreed to in April, with a few differences. (For instance, in the April draft, three hostages would be released every three days. In the new draft, three would be released every seven days, and then the remainder would be released at the end of the six weeks.)

The much tougher bit comes in phase two. Here, hostage releases would continue — eventually to include male civilians and soldiers — and the two sides would take steps toward “restoring a sustainable calm,” wording which was reportedly crafted by the US to allow the Israelis to avoid committing upfront to a permanent ceasefire. The hope from the White House is that a cessation in fighting during phase one will allow space for negotiations on a longer peace.

“It has been the stated aim of the United States to ensure that an initial six-week ceasefire would be built into something more enduring,” a senior US administration official told Vox. “The agreement lays out three phases for this purpose and it would be our aim to see all three phases completed with all the hostages returned to their families.”

As for Hamas, a deputy to the group’s leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar said on Monday that Egypt would be the guarantor of the deal and would somehow assure that the war did not resume. Hamas said they had also received promises that President Biden was committed to implementing the deal.

What about the Israelis?

“There seems to be a way out of this, which is for both sides to agree to punt permanent ceasefire negotiations to a second phase,” said Koplow. “But that can only happen if Netanyahu is willing to embrace some strategic ambiguity rather than insisting at every turn that there will be no permanent ceasefire.”

It’s unclear exactly how phase two differs between the two drafts, though the Al Jazeera report suggests that under phase two in the Hamas-agreed version, “Israeli forces shall withdraw completely from the Gaza Strip.” Agreeing to that upfront is almost certainly a nonstarter for Israel.

In the third phase, the two sides would exchange remains of the dead and begin a process of reconstruction for Gaza. According to media reports about the earlier draft, the third phase also included language committing Hamas to not rebuilding its military arsenal or infrastructure. This pledge is not in the text published by Al Jazeera. Israel might insist on it.

Where is the US?

Israeli officials have suggested that the Hamas offer is a ploy to make it appear as if Israel was rejecting a deal. They have also expressed frustration with the Biden administration, suggesting that the Americans knew about the proposal ahead of time and didn’t warn the Israelis. The White House has denied keeping the Israelis in the dark, but has also been somewhat coy about whether Burns had any hand in crafting the proposal, with Kirby saying on Monday that it is “safe to conclude that that response came as a result or at the end of these continued discussions that Director Burns was part of.”

The Biden administration has publicly and repeatedly opposed a major ground operation in Rafah, saying it has not seen what it considers an adequate plan from Israel to protect civilians. The president has personally warned Netanyahu that an assault on Rafah would cross a “red line.” Perhaps with those objections in mind, the IDF has described its operations this week as a “precise counterterrorism operation,” which is more or less what the US was urging Israel to do. Kirby also said on Tuesday that the White House had been assured by the Israelis that this was “an operation of limited scope, scale and duration.”

Whether it will stay that way remains to be seen. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told a group of Israeli soldiers on Tuesday that unless Hamas agreed to return the hostages, “we will go on and deepen the operation.” (Limited or not, the escalating airstrikes have already forced roughly 50,000 people to flee Rafah.)

The US hasn’t made clear exactly what would happen if Israel crosses the “red line,” but it is currently holding up several shipments of weapons to Israel, in what officials tell Politico is an attempt to send Israel a political message.

Is there a way out?

Aaron David Miller, a veteran Mideast peace negotiator for several US administrations now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Vox that while “constructive ambiguity” has often been useful in Israeli-Palestinian talks in the past, what’s taking place now “is a very strange negotiation.”

That’s because, he said, the two sides have defined the stakes as “existential.” While Hamas has taken significant casualties in this war, it has not been wiped out, as Israel vowed to do after October 7, and a ceasefire now would mean it would remain a significant political presence in Gaza. It’s far from clear that Israel is willing to live with that.

Another reason for skepticism, he says, is that both Netanyahu and Hamas’s Sinwar “are thinking first and foremost, not about how to relieve the suffering of the Gazan people or relieve suffering of these early hostages or their families. They’re thinking long-term about how to survive this.”

A recent poll found that 62 percent of Israelis think a hostage deal should take precedence over a Rafah operation, a majority that made itself very visible on Monday’s demonstrations. But that’s not the view of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who described the Hamas offer as a “manipulative trap” and urged his government to “press harder and harder on … Hamas’s throats until they are destroyed, to speak only with fire.”

If his allies bolt from his fragile coalition, Netanyahu could be out of a job, which — given his unrelated legal troubles — could mean he is back in court or behind bars.

“[Netanyahu] is unwilling to risk [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir and Smotrich bolting from his coalition, and I haven’t seen anything indicating that he is going to reverse course on that anytime soon,” said Israel Policy Forum’s Koplow.

The stakes are even higher for Sinwar, who has to worry about his own survival in a very literal sense. Miller said this should cause us to take commitments made by Hamas’s political leadership outside of Gaza with a grain of salt: “These negotiations are indirect. The key Palestinian decision-maker is 20 or 30 meters underground somewhere surrounded by hostages.”

Ultimately, the differences in wording between the various drafts of the ceasefire may matter less than whether the two sides actually want the deal. That’s far from clear.


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