Hamas talks with Egypt and Qatar on Gaza truce come amid tensions on Egypt’s border
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken left the Middle East on Thursday with divisions growing between Washington and Israel over plans to end the Gaza war, as top Hamas officials began meetings with mediators from Egypt and Qatar.
Mediation efforts to find a formula acceptable to the warring sides to end the fighting have floundered as the death and destruction in Gaza continues, with few clear avenues to end the crisis.
Egyptian security sources meanwhile told The National that troops stationed on the nation’s border with Israel and Gaza have been reinforced and put on high alert in response to Israeli threats to its forces.
Israel intends to shift ground operations to Rafah, a southern Gaza town where at least a million displaced Palestinians have found refuge.
Recent operations have devastated Khan Younis, about 10km from the border, once home to around 300,000 people.
Egypt fears that Palestinians living in makeshift camps on the Gaza side of Rafah will be forced to flee across the border into its Sinai Peninsula if Israeli forces take their search for Hamas fighters and facilities to the coastal town.
Cairo says this eventuality would “liquidate” the Palestinian cause, create a new hurdle for future negotiations to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and breach Egypt’s national security.
The UN and others have repeatedly warned that shifting Israeli ground operations to Rafah would cause a large number of civilian casualties given how crowded the town currently is.
The sources said Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has dispatched aircraft on reconnaissance missions over the area and was stepping up its monitoring of Israeli military movements.
Relations between Egypt and Israel have been tense since the Gaza war began four months ago, with Cairo frequently accusing Israel of carrying out collective punishment in Gaza, not doing enough to avoid civilian casualties and bombing the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing, close to the Egyptian border, on at least four occasions.
It also says Israel is impeding the arrival of sufficient humanitarian aid to Gaza, where nearly 28,000 Palestinians have been killed to date and the vast majority of its 2.3 million residents displaced.
On Tuesday night Hamas sent Egyptian and Qatari mediators counter-proposals to a plan hammered out last week in Paris by mediators from the US, Qatar and Egypt.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu firmly rejected the proposals, saying they were “delusional”. He vowed to continue fighting until Hamas has been eradicated and hostages held by the militant group are freed.
On Thursday, Hamas said Khalil Al Hayah, its deputy leader in Gaza, arrived in Egypt for talks on the prospects of a ceasefire.
The sources said he would be meeting officials from the Egyptian intelligence agency as well as Qatari mediators to discuss the way forward.
As with previous rounds, the talks are held behind closed doors.
Mr Blinken has said he saw some hope in Hamas’s counter-proposals, but acknowledged that they included some “non-starters.”