After 200 Days of War, Where Have the Gaza Ceasefire Negotiations Reached?

Relatives of Israeli prisoners demonstrate in Tel Aviv to demand that the government reach an agreement to release the detainees held by Hamas. (AFP)
Relatives of Israeli prisoners demonstrate in Tel Aviv to demand that the government reach an agreement to release the detainees held by Hamas. (AFP)
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After 200 Days of War, Where Have the Gaza Ceasefire Negotiations Reached?

Relatives of Israeli prisoners demonstrate in Tel Aviv to demand that the government reach an agreement to release the detainees held by Hamas. (AFP)
Relatives of Israeli prisoners demonstrate in Tel Aviv to demand that the government reach an agreement to release the detainees held by Hamas. (AFP)

Two hundred days since the eruption of war in the Gaza Strip, ceasefire efforts are still ongoing even though it remains to be seen whether mediators in Egypt, Qatar, and the United States will be able to resolve the crisis.

Since its start on Oct. 7, the war has only stopped for one week, following an Egyptian Qatari-mediated agreement in November during which Hamas released more than 100 of its hostages and Israel freed about three times this number of Palestinian prisoners.

Since that “lone truce,” the mediators have been pushing for another “broader and more comprehensive” agreement, but their efforts have not borne fruit so far. Expert in Israeli affairs at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies Dr. Saeed Okasha attributed this failure to “miscalculations on the part of both sides of the conflict.”

“Tel Aviv accepted the first truce, believing that it would help in relieving pressure, and then quickly decide the battle in its favor. For its part, Hamas hoped it would be able to build an international drive to end the war, believing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s accepting of the deal would weaken his position and damage his image before the international community because he views the movement as terrorist,” Okasha told Asharq Al-Awsat.

During the past months, the hope of achieving a “truce” rose at times and faded at others, as the mediators’ efforts stumbled at continued “Israeli intransigence” and “conditions” that Hamas was not willing to abandon.

At the end of January, hope was pinned on the “framework of a three-stage truce agreement, each lasting 40 days.” The framework was agreed upon at a meeting in Paris that was attended by the intelligence chiefs of Egypt, the United States, and Israel, in addition to the Qatari prime minister. They expected that the proposal would ultimately lead to talks over ending the war completely.

But this framework, which was described as "constructive" by officials in Israel and the US, did not translate into reality after six rounds of indirect negotiations, which moved from Paris to Cairo to Doha and then back to Paris.

Towards the end of the month of Ramadan, Cairo hosted a new round of negotiations during which the Director of the CIA, William Burns, presented to Hamas a proposal to restore calm. It called for a six-week truce during which Hamas would release 40 Israeli hostages in exchange for the release of 800 to 900 Palestinians arrested by Israel, the entry of 400 to 500 trucks of food aid daily, and the return of the displaced from northern Gaza to their homes.

However, the mediators were unable to convince both parties to accept the deal, so the negotiations reached a “dead end.” Here, Okasha said: “Neither party wants to make concessions, because that means losing the battle.”

He noted that Tel Aviv is seeking to achieve a military victory by invading the city of Rafah, while Hamas is heading toward “political suicide.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry confirmed in an interview with CNN last week that the talks “were continuing and have never been interrupted” even though “an agreement has not been reached yet.”



Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
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Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

The soldiers came before daybreak, singling out the Syrian men without residence permits from the tattered camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. As toddlers wailed around them, Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a decade, watched Lebanese troops shuffle her brother onto a truck headed for the Syrian border.

Thirteen years since Syria's conflict broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians - half of whom are refugees formally registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR - in a country of approximately 4 million Lebanese.

They are among some five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria. Donor countries in Brussels this week pledged fewer funds in Syria aid than last year.

With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic meltdown that has crushed livelihoods and most public services, its chronically underfunded security forces and typically divided politicians now agree on one thing: Syrians must be sent home.

Employers have been urged to stop hiring Syrians for menial jobs. Municipalities have issued new curfews and have even evicted Syrian tenants, two humanitarian sources told Reuters. At least one township in northern Lebanon has shuttered an informal camp, sending Syrians scattering, the sources said.

Lebanese security forces issued a new directive this month shrinking the number of categories through which Syrians can apply for residency - frightening many who would no longer qualify for legal status and now face possible deportation.

Lebanon has organized voluntary returns for Syrians, through which 300 travelled home in May. But more than 400 have also been summarily deported by the Lebanese army, two humanitarian sources told Reuters, caught in camp raids or at checkpoints set up to identify Syrians without legal residency.

They are automatically driven across the border, refugees and humanitarian workers say, fueling concerns about rights violations, forced military conscription or arbitrary detention.

Mona, who asked to change her name in fear of Lebanese authorities, said her brother was told to register with Syria's army reserves upon his entry. Fearing a similar fate, the rest of the camp's men no longer venture out.

"None of the men can pick up their kids from school, or go to the market to get things for the house. They can't go to any government institutions, or hospital, or court," Mona said.

She must now care for her brother's children, who were not deported, through an informal job she has at a nearby factory. She works at night to evade checkpoints along her commute.

A sign that reads "The return of the displaced is a right and a duty", is placed along a highway in Jounieh, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

'WRONG & NOT SUSTAINABLE'

Lebanon has deported refugees in the past, and political parties have long insisted parts of Syria are safe enough for large-scale refugee returns.

But in April, the killing of a local Lebanese party official blamed on Syrians touched off a concentrated campaign of anti-refugee sentiment.

Hate speech flourished online, with more than 50% of the online conversation about refugees in Lebanon focused on deporting them and another 20% referring to Syrians as an "existential threat," said Lebanese research firm InflueAnswers.

The tensions have extended to international institutions. Lebanon's foreign minister has pressured UNHCR's representative to rescind a request to halt the new restrictions and lawmakers slammed a one billion euro aid package from the European Union as a "bribe" to keep hosting refugees.

"This money that the EU is sending to the Syrians, let them send it to Syria," said Roy Hadchiti, a media representative for the Free Patriotic Movement, speaking at an anti-refugee rally organized by the conservative Christian party.

He, like a growing number of Lebanese, complained that Syrian refugees received more aid than desperate Lebanese. "Go see them in the camps - they have solar panels, while Lebanese can't even afford a private generator subscription," he said.

The UN still considers Syria unsafe for large-scale returns and said rising anti-refugee rhetoric is alarming.

"I am very concerned because it can result in... forced returns, which are both wrong and not sustainable," UNHCR head Filippo Grandi told Reuters.

"I understand the frustrations in host countries - but please don't fuel it further."

Zeina, a Syrian refugee who also asked her name be changed, said her husband's deportation last month left her with no work or legal status in an increasingly hostile Lebanese town.

Returning has its own dangers: her children were born in Lebanon and do not have Syrian ID cards, and her home in Homs province remains in ruins since a 2012 government strike that forced her to flee.

"Even now, when I think of those days, and I think of my parents or anyone else going back, they can't. The house is flattened. What kind of return is that?" she said.