How are Israel and Hamas addressing the challenges in Gaza?

Ziyad al-Nakhalah, the leader of the Palestine Islamic Jihad, has arrived in Cairo for talks with Egyptian intelligence chief General Abbas Kamel. The Palestinian leader is discussing an end to the Gaza war, which would involve an exchange of prisoners, the withdrawal of Israeli forces, and reconstruction of the devastated territory.

Hamas uses the Egyptian proposal to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to release 107 hostages kidnapped by the group during its October 7 attack on Israel and 22 killed captives, rather than prosecute the war, despite the proposal’s lack of mutually exclusive demands.

Finding common ground between Israel, which is bent on destroying Hamas at any cost and refusing to contemplate an end to the Gaza war, and Hamas, which refuses to negotiate further prisoner exchanges without Israel agreeing to a permanent ceasefire and withdrawal from Gaza, is a Herculean, if not impossible task. The Egyptian proposal seeks to maneuver the minefields by proposing the exchange of all remaining Hamas hostages for all Palestinians held in Israeli prisons in three phases over a period of up to two months.

An inter-Palestinian agreement could allow Hamas to join the Palestinian administration of Gaza and the West Bank and join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), a Palestinian umbrella group. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has added deradicalization of Palestinian society to his war aims, stating that Hamas must be destroyed, Gaza must be demilitarized, and Palestinian society must be deradicalized. The Egyptian plan envisions the creation of a technocratic Palestinian government that would take office in stage three, preparing the ground for presidential and parliamentary elections in which Hamas would compete.

The Cairo visit of Mr. Al-Nakhalah, whose Islamic Jihad group focuses on armed struggle against Israel, is crucial for exiled Hamas officials to try to bridge differences with the group’s Gaza leadership. Some exiled officials favor a reconciliation with Al-Fatah that would entail some form of implicit or explicit recognition of Israel, while the Gaza leadership rejects concessions. Former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad believes that a united Palestinian polity is best presented to the world by a united Palestinian polity. If successful, the exile officials could spark a paradigm shift in the dynamics of the Gaza war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much like the PLO’s recognition of Israel and disavowal of violence in the 1980s.

The shift in Hamas’ position advocated by exiles could complicate Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s life and put the Biden administration supporting Netanyahu’s goal of destroying Hamas at any cost on the spot. The United States wants a capable and effective Palestine Authority to govern both the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinian reconciliation could force the US to exert pressure on Israel. US coaxing has failed to persuade Israel to change its military tactics to reduce innocent Palestinian casualties. Israel has also stymied the Biden administration’s efforts to make the discredited and cash-starved Palestine Authority viable by refusing to release US$140 million in Palestinian tax money frozen since October 7.

Abdelaziz al-Sagher and Anne Grillo proposed a joint transition council to end the Gaza war, governing the territory for four years under a United Nations-mandated Arab peacekeeping force. The plan, which was less palatable to Israel, suggested Hamas leaders be sent to Algeria.

Egypt’s plan to release Israeli military personnel in exchange for Palestinian prisoners could potentially spark the breakup of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition government. The Israeli military exchange ratio is higher than the 1 Israeli for 3 Palestinians ratio for civilians. Hamas has previously exchanged Israeli soldiers for Palestinians. Egypt’s plan involves releasing remaining hostages in exchange for Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted for killing Israelis. This could potentially challenge Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is criticized for Israeli intelligence and operational failures.

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