An Israeli delegation reportedly landed in Cairo on Monday to resume “negotiations aimed at releasing Israeli prisoners held by resistance factions in Gaza.”
Israeli officials are reportedly telling U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Palestinians will not be allowed to return to northern Gaza if Hamas does not agree to a new hostage release deal, two senior Israeli officials told Axios on Tuesday.
“We are not going to allow Palestinians to go back to their homes in northern Gaza if there is no progress with the release of hostages,” one senior Israeli official told the American outlet.
Tel Aviv is the next stop on Blinken’s Middle East tour, his fourth since the beginning of Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza on October 7. Israel has since killed at least 23,084 Palestinians while injuring 58,926 others, according to the latest figures by the Strip’s health authorities.
Blinken’s tour has so far included stops in Turkiye, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
One Israeli official told Axios that Israel is using the return of Palestinians to Gaza as “significant leverage” for a new hostage deal.
Another senior Israeli official noted that Washington and Tel Aviv agree that the Palestinians’ return to the north will not happen soon due to the ongoing battles.
Speaking to the press in Doha on Sunday, Blinken stressed that “Palestinian civilians must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow,” a matter that is likely on the agenda of his meeting with Israeli officials in Tel Aviv.
“They cannot and they must not be pressed to leave Gaza. We reject the statements by some Israeli ministers and lawmakers calling for a resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza,” Blinken told reporters in Qatar.
Blinken was referring to calls by Israeli National Security Minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, and Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, for the “voluntary emigration” of Palestinians on January 1.
The Israeli ministers had advocated for the forced displacement of Palestinians as a solution to the ongoing Israeli war on Gaza and to enable Israelis’ return to illegal settlements.
“These statements are irresponsible, they’re inflammatory, and they only make it harder to secure a future of a Palestinian-led Gaza with Hamas no longer in control and with terrorist groups no longer able to threaten Israel’s security,” Blinken said, without calling for a ceasefire in the Strip.
Blinken’s tour comes as the U.S. scrambles for another deal to release the remaining 136 Israeli and foreign captives from Gaza.
Qatar — the host of a Hamas political office and a Major non-NATO ally — alongside Egypt, have been at the forefront of de-escalation efforts in Gaza.
Doha and Cairo’s mediation had resulted in a temporary truce that lasted between November 24 and December 1 following two extensions under wider efforts to reach a permanent ceasefire.
The pause led to the release of at least 110 Israeli and foreign captives from Gaza, according to a Doha News tally. As part of the deal, Israel released 240 Palestinian women and children from Israeli prisons.
The negotiations faced a new challenge last week following Israel’s killing of senior Hamas leader, Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, a move that marked a dangerous escalation following months of cross-border attacks in southern Lebanon.
An Israeli delegation landed in Cairo on Monday to resume “negotiations aimed at releasing Israeli prisoners held by resistance factions in Gaza,” Egyptian sources told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.
Egyptian sources had told the news outlet on January 2 that Cairo told officials to “suspend” its participation in mediation talks.
Isolated northern Gaza
Israel had ordered approximately 1.1 million people to evacuate northern Gaza to the south on 12 October 2023 and occupation forces raided the Al-Shifa Medical complex, the largest in Gaza, the following month.
Israel had forced thousands of displaced and wounded Palestinians to evacuate the medical facility, which served as a shelter during the first days of Israel’s war on Gaza.
The occupation forces then kidnapped Al-Shifa Hospital’s director Muhammad Abu Salmiya, on November 23 and his whereabouts remain unknown.
The Israeli forces have frequently targeted Palestinians as they were evacuating to the south, where Israel intensified its bombardment and field executions since late last year. A total of 1.9 million people out of Gaza’s 2.2 million population are now displaced.
For more than three months, Israel has forced Palestinians in Gaza to flee numerous times as they are under constant threat of bombardment or field executions. For Palestinians on the ground, the United Nations and rights groups, including Amnesty, declared that there is no safe zone in Gaza.
Israel’s military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said on Monday that they are moving to the next, longer phase of the war, involving scaling down the bombardments on Gaza.
On January 5, Israel’s military minister Yoav Gallant detailed the next phase, saying Israeli forces in northern Gaza “will transition to a new combat approach in accordance with military achievements on the ground.”
“It will continue for as long as is deemed necessary,” a statement from Gallant’s office said.