Ceasefire talks raise Gaza hopes but 1.5m trapped in Rafah fear the worst

<span>Internally displaced Palestinians sit in a corridor at a UN school in Deir al-Balah, southern Gaza, on 24 February.</span><span>Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA</span>
Internally displaced Palestinians sit in a corridor at a UN school in Deir al-Balah, southern Gaza, on 24 February.Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA

A closed-door meeting of spy chiefs, military officials and diplomats has briefly renewed hopes of a potential ceasefire deal amid fierce debates at the United Nations, but observers have warned that time is running out to make progress and prevent a looming Israeli offensive on Gaza’s southernmost city.

The secretive talks at an unknown location in Paris involved David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, conducting separate meetings with Egyptian spy chief Abbas Kamel, head of the CIA William Burns and Qatari prime minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani.

Israeli officials said they had dispatched negotiators to Paris with an expanded mandate. “We will expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators,” Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant told US envoy to the Middle East Brett McGurk last week. “At the same time, the IDF is preparing the continuation of intense ground operations.”

The Israeli delegation had reportedly already left by Saturday morning to take any developments back to Israel’s war cabinet, dampening expectations that talks could continue into the weekend.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that “significant progress was made” but did not specify what aspects of the talks had moved forward. Hamas representatives, speaking to the Observer, said that there had been “no progress in the talks due to [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s stubbornness”.

Negotiators met to discuss a pause in fighting along with the release of the remaining 136 hostages held by Hamas and other groups. The talks include details of an exchange of Palestinian prisoners and the entry of aid into Gaza for both civilian and military captives.

Recent statements from Israeli officials that at least 31 of the hostages are dead, as well as the increasing threat of an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, where an estimated 1.5 million people are sheltering, have only increased the time pressure for negotiators.

“I think that time is not in our favour,” Qatar’s Sheikh Mohammed told the Munich security conference earlier this week, after a minister from Israel’s war cabinet threatened a ground offensive by the imminent Muslim holy month of Ramadan if no agreement was reached. “Ramadan is ahead of us now, and also as [the] situation in Rafah is evolving, it will be very dangerous for the entire region.”

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said that Israel was “keeping the Americans warm, and not wanting to be blamed for the talks collapsing. If they can get things on their own terms, that’s fine, but they’re not yet ready for the Rafah ground offensive anyway.”

US negotiators, he said, were attempting to drive progress over various details within the negotiations despite major disagreements on substantive issues such as a permanent ceasefire or the release of high-profile Palestinian prisoners.

“There is apparently a hope in the talks that this time Hamas will change its position as it’s now feeling a degree of pressure it hasn’t previously, but there’s nothing to suggest that’s the case,” he said.

A Hamas representative told the Observer that the Palestinian side currently feels that it has “nothing left to lose” due to the level of destruction in Gaza, as the death toll approaches 30,000. They are confident that their armed wing can continue fighting, they added.

The group is seeking a prisoner swap of 500 Palestinian prisoners for every Israeli soldier held in Gaza, they said. Their broader demands – including an immediate ceasefire, the complete withdrawal of Israeli troops, and humanitarian aid to the north – remained unchanged. No exchange would take place without Israel fulfilling these requests, they added.

At the same time as peace talks were being held in Paris, diplomatic negotiations have been taking place at the UN in New York. On Tuesday, the US vetoed a security ceasefire resolution in the UN security council for the third time, but that did not entirely kill the matter. The US circulated an alternative resolution calling for a temporary ceasefire “as soon as practicable” and a block on any Israeli attack on Rafah.

That resolution has since been discussed behind the scenes by experts from council member missions but it is not clear when or whether it will be introduced formally. Arab states are undecided on its merits and Russia and China are expected to block it on the grounds that it falls short of an immediate ceasefire.

The UK abstained on Tuesday, sparing the US from absolute isolation in the council. The UK position, calling for an immediate suspension of hostilities to allow for negotiations on a sustainable ceasefire, was closer to the line taken by other council members than to the American stance, that a ceasefire could only be negotiated by the parties, not imposed from the outside. The view in Washington is that Netanyahu is keeping his options open, weighing between hostage negotiations and an assault on Rafah, and will only choose between them at a later date.

Despite US president Joe Biden’s demands to Netanyahu in recent weeks that Israel should not conduct a ground invasion of Rafah without a plan to protect civilians, US officials currently see no signs of a humanitarian plan to accommodating Gazans displaced multiple times by Israeli military operations.

They do not expect any such Israeli plan to come close to US requirements, let alone the standards set by international humanitarian agencies, but they do expect to see some sort of formal plan as a precursor to military preparations.

“No plan presented for us to look at that I’m aware of in terms of Rafah operations,” John Kirby, White House national security spokesperson, told reporters. “We still would not support operations in Rafah, no matter what the timescale is.

“We wouldn’t support those kinds of operations unless or until the Israelis had properly accounted for the safety and security of the more than one million people that are seeking refuge down there.”

US officials say Israeli troops have been pulled out, and the military presence in the Gaza strip is at its lowest since the launch of the ground offensive at the end of October.

Despite this, heavy bombardments of the enclave, including Rafah, have continued amid increasing reports of famine and dwindling supplies of aid. Two UN agencies declared this week that they are now unable to deliver aid to northern Gaza as desperate starving people have removed aid from trucks, and amid attacks on aid convoys.

The UN said “catastrophic levels of acute food insecurity” were intensifying across Gaza while Save the Children reported that families were forced to “forage for scraps or food left by rats and eating leaves out of desperation to survive”.

Biden administration officials have voiced frustration over Israel’s very patchy cooperation over humanitarian efforts, and Netanyahu’s promotion of a post-conflict plan for Gaza that excludes the Palestinian Authority, but they claim they have little leverage over him.

There is no sign of Biden using the most powerful form of leverage available to him, namely threats to halt the flow of arms and ammunition. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a new shipment of about a thousand MK-82 bombs and thousands of bomb components is in the pipeline.

Ceasefire negotiations had stalled prior to the latest meeting in Paris after Hamas demanded a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the enclave, and a prisoner swap.

Netanyahu derided these demands as “delusional” and said Israeli forces would push ahead with a ground invasion of Rafah without an agreement on freeing the remaining hostages.