Toronto Star ePaper

Israel, Hamas extend ceasefire

Truce to continue for two more days, Qatar says, as fourth group of hostages, prisoners is released

The deal seemed on the verge of unravelling. Hamas had accused Israel of failing to keep its side of the bargain and Israel was threatening to resume its lethal onslaught on the Gaza Strip.

That was the point at which a Qatari jet landed at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport on Saturday. Negotiators aboard set to work, seeking to save the ceasefire deal between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers before it fell apart and scuttled weeks of high-stakes diplomatic wrangling.

The first public visit by Qatari officials to Israel marked an extraordinary moment for the two countries, which have no diplomatic relations. It also underscored the major role of the tiny emirate in bridging differences between the enemies.

“This is something we’ve never seen before,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said of the Qataris’ stay in Israel. “It’s the only external actor in the world with that much leverage on Hamas, because of its many years of support.”

The weekend mission was successful, and most of the team jetted home. But several Qatari mediators stayed behind to work with Israeli intelligence officials on extending the four-day truce, which ends Tuesday morning, according to a diplomat briefed on the visit.

With its close ties to the United States — it hosts the largest American military base between Europe and Japan — its communication with Israel since 1995 and its support of blockaded Gaza to the tune of what estimates suggest is more than $1 billion (U.S.) since 2014, Qatar is positioned to break deadlocks in the ceasefire talks, which also involve the U.S. and Egypt.

The emirate has hosted an overseas Hamas political office since 2012, allowing Qatar to wield some influence over the militant group’s decision-makers. Top Hamas officials, including the supreme leader, Ismail Haniyeh, live in Qatar.

Qatari officials say they are guided by a desire to reduce conflict, though their ties with a range of Islamist groups, including Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Taliban have drawn criticism from Israel, some U.S. lawmakers and neighbouring Arab governments.

Over the weekend, Hamas complained that Israel had violated the terms of their ceasefire and said the deal was in danger. Qatari officials resorted to face-to-face meetings with Israeli officials to try to save the deal, according to the diplomat. A few hours with Mossad officials in Tel Aviv proved crucial on Saturday. Suddenly, the deal was back on. Hamas handed over its second batch of Israeli hostages, families in the West Bank rejoiced over another 39 women and teenagers freed from prison, and Palestinians in Gaza emerged from their shelters to search for fuel and missing family members.





Toronto Star Newspapers Limited