Egypt floats an ambitious plan to end the Israel-Hamas war as Netanyahu vows to expand Gaza combat

The proposal includes a ceasefire, a phased hostage release and the creation of a Palestinian government of experts who would administer the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank

Israeli soldiers ride in armoured personnel carriers (APCs), amid the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, in Southern Israel, December 25, 2023.
Israeli soldiers ride in armoured personnel carriers (APCs), amid the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, in Southern Israel, December 25, 2023.VIOLETA SANTOS MOURA (REUTERS)

Egypt has put forward an ambitious, initial proposal to end the Israel-Hamas war with a ceasefire, a phased hostage release and the creation of a Palestinian government of experts who would administer the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank, a senior Egyptian official and a European diplomat said Monday.

Word of the proposal came as Israeli airstrikes heavily pounded central and southern Gaza, crushing buildings on families sheltering inside. In the Maghazi refugee camp, rescue workers were still pulling bodies from the wreckage hours after a strike that killed at least 106 people, according to hospital records seen by The Associated Press — one of the deadliest of Israel’s air campaign.

The Egyptian proposal, worked out with the Gulf nation of Qatar, has been presented to Israel, Hamas, the United States and European governments but still appeared preliminary. It falls short of Israel’s professed goal of outright crushing Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, which triggered the war. It would appear not to meet Israel’s insistence on keeping military control over Gaza for an extended period after the war. It also is unclear if Hamas would agree to relinquish power.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed the war would not stop.

“We are expanding the fight in the coming days and this will be a long battle and it isn’t close to finished,” he said, speaking to members of his Likud Party.

He delivered a similar message in a speech in Israel’s parliament, where families of the more than 100 Israeli hostages still held in Gaza held signs calling for Israel to reach a deal to bring them home immediately. “Now! Now!,” they chanted from the gallery.

Netanyahu and other members of the War Cabinet are to meet later Monday, an Israeli official said, but would not say if they would discuss the Egyptian proposal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The war has devastated large parts of Gaza, killed more than 20,400 Palestinians and displaced almost all of the territory’s 2.3 million people. U.N. officials warning that a quarter of the population are starving under Israel’s siege of the territory, which allows only a trickle of supplies in. Arriving aid trucks are often met by crowds of desperate people who in some cases have looted boxes of food and water.

A policeman with the Hamas-run Interior Ministry shot to death a 13-year-old boy when a group of people tried to seize aid from trucks arriving near the southern city of Rafah on Sunday, an official with Hamas government media office said Monday.

Enraged relatives of the slain boy attempted to attack a police station, burning tires and demanding the policeman be held accountable. The devastation of the war over the past weeks has brought sporadic eruptions of anger against Hamas, something that has previously been unthinkable during the group’s 16-year rule over Gaza.

Egyptian proposal

Despite growing international pressure for a halt, Israel has said it is determined to destroy Hamas’ governing and military capabilities after the Oct, 7 attack, in which militants rampaged in southern Israeli communities, killing around 1,200 people and abducting around 240. Israel also says it aims to free 129 people still held hostage.

The Egyptian proposal was an ambitious bid not only to end the war but also to lay out a plan for the day after.

It calls for an initial ceasefire of up to two weeks during which Palestinian militants would free 40 to 50 hostages, among them women, the sick and the elderly, in return for the release of 120-150 Palestinians from Israeli prisons, the Egyptian official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing talks.

At the same time, negotiations would continue on extending the ceasefire and the release of more hostages and bodies held by Palestinian militants, he said.

Egypt and Qatar would also work with all Palestinian factions, including Hamas, to agree on the establishment of a government of experts, he said. The government would rule Gaza and the West Bank for a transitional period as Palestinian factions settle their disputes and agree on a roadmap to hold presidential and parliamentary elections, he added.

In the meantime, Israel and Hamas would negotiate a comprehensive “all-for-all” deal, he said. This would include the release of all remaining hostages in return for all Palestinian prisoners in Israel, as well as the Israeli military’s withdrawal from Gaza and the Palestinian militants’ halting of rocket attacks into Israel. Close to 8,000 Palestinians are held by Israel on security-related charges or convictions, according to Palestinian figures.

Egyptian officials discussed the outline of the proposal with Ismail Haniyeh, the Qatar-based political leader of Hamas, who visited Cairo last week and planned to discuss it with the leader of the Islamic Jihad group, Ziyad al-Nakhalah, who arrived in Cairo on Sunday, the official said.

A Western diplomat said they are aware of Egypt’s proposal. But the diplomat, who demanded anonymity to discuss the matter, doubts that Netanyahu and his hawkish government would accept the entire proposal. The diplomat gave no further details.

Inside Gaza

Israel’s offensive has been one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history. More than two-thirds of the more than 20,400 Palestinians killed have been women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants among the dead.

Sunday night’s strike in the Maghazi camp levelled a three-story building and damaged neighboring ones. On Monday, first responders and residents, some digging with bare hands, pulled dozens more bodies out of the rubble. At Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in nearby Deir al-Balah, men prayed over several dozen bodies laid out on the ground. Sobbing relatives peeled open body bags to get a last look or kiss the face of a loved one. One man wept as he hugged a body wrapped in bloody plastic sheeting, the size of a small child.

Another man knelt over the body of a relative, screaming, “I swear to God, he was a man. I swear to God, he was better than the whole of Hamas.”

The bodies of another 80 people killed in other strikes across central Gaza were also received at the hospital from late Sunday to early Monday, hospital records showed.

Since Friday, 17 Israeli soldiers have been killed in combat, most in southern and central Gaza — an indication of the heavy fighting in and around the southern city of Khan Younis. Since the ground offensive began, 156 soldiers have been killed, a mounting toll that could erode public support for the war.

Israelis still largely stand behind the war against Hamas. But there has been widespread anger against Netanyahu’s government, which many criticize for failing to protect civilians on Oct. 7 and promoting policies that allowed Hamas to gain strength over the years. Netanyahu has avoided accepting responsibility for the military and policy failures.

In northern Gaza, Palestinians reported heavy Israeli bombardment and gunfire in the urban refugee camp of Jabaliya, an area Israel had claimed to control. The Israeli military said it had completed the dismantling of Hamas’ underground headquarters in northern Gaza.

Israel faces international criticism for the civilian death toll, but it blames Hamas, citing the militants’ use of crowded residential areas and tunnels. Israel says it has killed thousands of Hamas militants, without presenting evidence.

Israel also faces allegations of mistreating Palestinian men and teenage boys detained in homes, shelters, hospitals and elsewhere during the offensive. The military says it had detained hundreds of Palestinians, including more than 700 who were transferred to Israel for further interrogation about suspected ties to militants. It has denied abuse allegations and said those without links to militants are quickly released.

Speaking from a hospital bed in Rafah after his release, Khamis al-Burdainy of Gaza City said Israeli forces detained him after tanks and bulldozers partly destroyed his home. He said men were handcuffed and blindfolded.

“We didn’t sleep. We didn’t get food and water,” he said, crying and covering his face.

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