Israeli government accused of trying to sabotage Gaza ceasefire proposal

Lorenzo Tondo

The Guardian  /  July 7, 2024

Mossad chief gave mediators list of new demands and it was not clear whether Hamas would accede to them, reports say.

Jerusalem – The Israeli government has been accused of attempting to sabotage a US-backed ceasefire proposal, according to Israeli media, by introducing new demands despite previously accepting the plan.

Hopes for a ceasefire in Gaza had risen in recent days following reports that Hamas had given initial approval for a new proposal for a phased deal, after ninth months of war since the attack on 7 October.

Egyptian officials and representatives of Hamas said the Islamist militant organization had dropped a key demand that Israel commit to a definitive end to the war before any pause in hostilities, Reuters and the Associated Press reported.

Two Hamas officials told Reuters they were now waiting for a response from Israel, where protesters took to the streets on Sunday to press the government to reach an accord to bring back the hostages still being held in Gaza.

However, David Barnea, the chief of the Mossad foreign intelligence service, who was dispatched over the weekend to Qatar, where talks are being held, was reported to have provided the mediators with a list of new reservations, according to Israeli media.

The Haaretz newspaper cited a source familiar with the details as saying Israel’s new demands were expected to delay negotiations, and that it was not clear whether Hamas would accede to them.

“Hamas has already agreed to the latest position presented by Israel,” the source told Haaretz. “But in Friday’s meeting, Israel presented some new points it demands that Hamas accept.”

Negotiations with Hamas were expected to last “at least three weeks” before the deal could be carried out, Haaretz reported.

Once again, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is facing criticism from opposition parties, media and families of Israeli hostages, who accuse him of undermining efforts to reach a ceasefire and secure the release of the hostages, for his own political survival.

“We appeal to the heads of the security agencies and the negotiating team – all eyes are on you. Do not let Netanyahu sabotage the deal again. We must rescue all the hostages,” the families said at a news conference near the defence ministry in Tel Aviv on Saturday.

As a potential agreement draws near, Netanyahu has shown a pattern of retreating from hostage negotiations. On multiple occasions in recent months, he has been accused of obstructing progress that could bring an end to the conflict, whether through public pronouncements, covert communications, or by limiting the negotiating team’s authority.

There are concerns over the substantial influence wielded by the far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, whom Netanyahu relies on for his ruling coalition and who are opposed to a ceasefire.

A few hours after Netanyahu sent Barnea to Doha to study the proposal, Ben-Gvir threatened to quit and collapse the governing coalition. In a post on social media on Saturday, Smotrich said he would “not be part of a government that agrees to the proposed outline and ends the war without destroying Hamas and bringing back all the hostages”.

In a statement, Netanyahu said Israel would maximize the number of live hostages returned, and late on Sunday Netanyahu’s office issued a document entitled Principles for a Hostage Release Deal demanding that “any deal enable Israel to resume its offensive operations until it achieves its war goals”, to “prevent Hamas from smuggling arms from Egypt”, and to prevent “thousands of terrorists from returning to northern Gaza”, Haaretz reported.

The document, which risks further hindering negotiations, was heavily criticized by the opposition leader, Yair Lapid, who said: “What good does this do? We are at a crucial moment in the negotiations, the lives of the hostages depends on this. Why make such taunting announcements? How does this help the process?”

Netanyahu’s popularity plummeted after the 7 October attack by Hamas, which exposed serious flaws in Israeli security. Most political observers say Netanyahu would lose elections if they were held now. At an anti-government protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday, Orly Nativ, a 57-year-old social worker, joined the hundreds of flag-wielding demonstrators. “Enough is enough,” Nativ said.

The head of the National Unity party, Benny Gantz, who in June quit the emergency government in a sign of divisions over Netanyahu’s post-conflict plans for Gaza, said: “Netanyahu, not everything depends on you. But you must show commitment, determination and sincere intentions this time as well. You know as well as I do that since the previous proposal, we have lost many of the hostages, who died in captivity.”

Pressure is mounting on Israel, as a Gaza ceasefire could also allow for de-escalation between Hezbollah and Israel. The Lebanese group took responsibility on Sunday for a rocket barrage on the Lower Galilee, claiming to have targeted an Israeli military base near Tiberias. An Israeli man was seriously wounded by shrapnel from a rocket impact, medics said. Hezbollah has declared its attacks on Israel to be in support of Hamas and indicated its willingness to halt its assaults if a ceasefire is reached in Gaza.

In Gaza, Palestinian health officials said at least 15 people were killed in separate Israeli military strikes across the territory on Sunday.

The conflict was triggered on 7 October, when Hamas-led fighters attacked southern Israel from Gaza, killing 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostages.

At least 38,153 Palestinians have been killed and 87,828 injured in Israel’s military offensive on Gaza since then, Gaza’s health ministry said on Sunday.

Lorenzo Tondo is a Guardian correspondent covering Italy and the migration crisis

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report