As many as 13 phone conversations between US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, coupled with several other engagements and supplemented by intermittent discussions with Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, culminated in a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas.
The armistice, initially set for a few days, aims to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, following the hostilities that erupted on October 7.
Negotiators based in Ankara, Doha, and Beirut told Frontline exclusively that the armistice, unanimously ratified by all stakeholders, is designed to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza and permit a limited prisoner swap.
Qatar has been instrumental in brokering the deal, ensuring participation from regional powers such as Iran, Egypt, and Türkiye as well.
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The truce was finessed through pivotal meetings, the last one notably in Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, acting on Iranian directives, convened with Hamas officials Osama Hamdan and Khalil al-Hayya to discuss the last details to address Israeli concerns from the northern border. Hayya is Hamas’ head of Arab relations while Hamdan is a senior member in the politburo.
The six-page ceasefire document stipulates the cessation of Israeli military activities, a prohibition on Israeli flights over southern Gaza, and restricted northern airspace operations.
Crucial early discussions took shape on October 25, with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and White House Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk deliberating the framework of the truce. The US was forced to step in and use its influence over Israel because of global protests and concerns over its reputation among Arab partners.
To ensure smooth negotiations, a “cell” of representatives from Qatar, the US, and Israel was set up to review progress almost every day. The American contributors included CIA Director William Burns, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and McGurk, alongside Israel’s Mossad chief David Barnea.
The Emir of Qatar delegated Prime Minister Abdulrahman al-Thani to the “cell”, with additional critical inputs from Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, who is a former sleuth, and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, both of whom were influential in bridging negotiation gaps.
Between October 20 and 25, Barnea held several talks with Burns, and Biden spoke with Netanyahu four times during this period to prepare an outline of the agreement, which was then discussed with Qatar on October 25.
Before negotiations could take a serious turn, the Hamas political leadership in Doha, Istanbul, and Beirut was told to demonstrate its grip on the ground and on its cadres holding the captives. To demonstrate this, Hamas released US citizens Judith and Natalie Raanan on October 21, bolstering confidence in Qatar’s mediating capabilities. Further releases underlined the negotiators’ influence over ground operations.
However, the deal faced setbacks twice: first when Israelis launched a ground offensive on October 29 and a second time after the Israeli military’s incursion into Gaza’s Al-Shifa Hospital on November 15.
Corroborating this, the Israeli newspaper Times of Israel reported that the Israeli ground offensive had complicated the negotiations, but the CIA chief had managed to persuade the Qatari Prime Minister and the Mossad head to continue the talks. Biden’s direct phone call with Qatar’s Emir also helped to restore talks.
A White House official told the newspaper that a critical phone call by Biden to Netanyahu restored the progress, furthered by on-ground coordination from McGurk in Tel Aviv. During these talks, Netanyahu asked Biden to press the Emir of Qatar to accelerate the process.
However, communications broke down again on November 15 following the Israeli attack on Shifa Hospital. Hamas severed contact with the Qatari and Egyptian mediators, enraged at the Israeli army’s incursion into the hospital. It took two days and another call from Biden to the Emir of Qatar for talks to resume.
On November 18 McGurk and Burns met the Qatari Prime Minister with an improved draft. Sources say that the Qatari Prime Minister held talks with Hamas leaders for several hours on this draft. The meeting involved Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, former chief Khaled Mashal, and other key politburo members as well so that nothing was left to chance.
It was after some intense negotiation that the CIA chief Burns and the Qatar Prime Minister finally hammered down a six-page agreement ready to be handed over to Israel. The next day McGurk met Egyptian intelligence chief Kamel in Cairo, who helped fill in some remaining gaps.
The final proposal was presented to Israel, which still had concerns about Hezbollah on its northern border. These were addressed when Hamas leaders met the Hezbollah chief in Beirut on November 23.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas leader, said that according to the deal all military actions will cease for the duration of the ceasefire. In addition, no Israeli military aircraft will fly over the southern Gaza Strip for four days, while in the north flights will be suspended from 10 am to 4 pm each day.
Iftikhar Gilani is an Indian journalist based in Ankara.