As of 27 November 2023, a ceasefire is still in place in the Gaza Strip. According to the agreements reached, the parties to the conflict continue to exchange hostages (a third round of hostage exchanges is already being prepared). And the list of main mediators in this important matter is growing: Qatar, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, the US and Russia.
Hamas is interested in preserving the truce and receiving the necessary external humanitarian aid (including medicines, fuel, food, removal of seriously wounded to hospitals in Turkey and Arab countries). The first stage of the prisoner exchange took place on 24 November. At the same time, the Israeli side notes that Hamas handed over the Israelis and released only the Thais, who as of 7 October this year were engaged in agricultural work in Israel, and a Filipino from among the foreigners. The latter, according to Tel Aviv, is determined by Iranian influence.
In particular, on the first day of the truce, Hamas released 11 Thais and one Filipino. According to Mark Regev, a senior adviser to the Israeli Prime Minister, this is due to the Thai government’s direct contacts with Iran. In this regard, he noted to Fox News the following: “We know that the Thais have been talking directly to the Iranians… Iran is a major sponsor of Hamas…it’s part of their axis of terror. It is clear that if Iran asks Hamas to do something, they will do it.” This is why Israel was not surprised that not a single American was released on the first day of the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
The information of the Israeli advisor Mark Regev about the Iranian trace in the priority release of the Thais is actually confirmed by the leader of the Shiite Muslims of Thailand, Syed Sulaiman Husaini. In particular, in his interview with the Bangkok Post, Husaini noted that the negotiations with Hamas representatives took place in the office of the Iranian presidential adviser, where the Thai side was led by the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Muslim Wan Muhamad Noor Matha.
Meanwhile, Turkish sources note the key role of Turkish President Recep Erdoğan in the situation with the transfer of the Thais to Israel. It was thanks to the efforts of the Turkish leader and his opinion in the negotiations with the Hamas leadership (apparently with Ismail Haniyeh) that the Palestinian side urgently decided to prioritise the release of the Thais.
On the night of 26 November, a second prisoner exchange took place. In particular, Hamas handed over to the Israeli side 17 persons, seven of whom were foreigners. At the same time, Ron Krivoy, an Israeli with Russian citizenship, was released by the Palestinian side outside the exchange in accordance with the agreements reached earlier during the negotiations between Hamas representatives and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.
Qatar plays an important mediating role in this deal. The head of the Mossad, David Barnea, came to Doha beforehand to discuss the release of hostages. It should be noted that Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani demonstrates an active mediation mission in the Middle East region. It was Doha that mediated an agreement between the US and Iran on the issue of partial unwinding of Iranian holdings in exchange for the transfer of five American captives to the US.
A Hamas political office was opened in Doha in 2012 and continues to operate to this day, making Qatar an important mediator in the conflict situation with Israel.
Israeli hostage negotiator Gershon Baskin, who deals directly with Hamas, regarding Qatar’s role, has previously noted that Doha supports terrorism and should be “held accountable.” As one of the conditions, Baskin suggested that the largest US military base in Qatar should demand that Mohammed Al Thani force Hamas to release all Israeli hostages, or expel the Hamas office from Qatar.
At the same time, according to The Guardian, G. Baskin believes that, unlike the Qatari intelligence services, Egyptian intelligence maintains better ties with Hamas. Thus, Tel Aviv is actually putting pressure on Doha and demonstrating its independence. Similar pressure tactics were duplicated through the US Congress as well, forcing Qatar to hurry in reaching agreements with Hamas on the hostage exchange issue.
It should be recalled that the CIA also maintains contacts with the Qatari intelligence services quite effectively. That is why on 23 October, the US secured the release of two American citizens from the Gaza Strip (Judith and Natalie Raanan). This was a test for the CIA to establish contacts with Hamas through Qatar and to continue subsequent negotiations for the release of a larger group of hostages (including timing, number of captives, safe exchange corridors and surveillance). Accordingly, US State Department head Anthony Blinken negotiated with the Israeli side to set a date for a “tactical or (humanitarian) pause.”
The hostage exchange itself takes place in Egypt through the Rafah checkpoint, from where, however, the main flow of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip is sent. At the same time, Cairo co-operates quite effectively with the United States and Israel.
Thus, it can be noted that in such a dramatic conflict between Hamas and Israel, the appearance of an impressive list of mediators for the release of hostages and the observance of the ceasefire is not coincidental. On the one hand, the political bias of some mediators in favour of one or another party to the conflict (for example, Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt in favour of Palestine, and the US in favour of Israel); on the other hand, the high status of the state interested in achieving a “fragile peace” (in particular, Russia).
Meanwhile, the ceasefire regime has been subjected by the parties to disruption with mutual accusations of violation of the reached conditions (in particular, Hamas accuses the Israeli army of forceful actions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and Tel Aviv considers Hamas and its attempts to regroup its forces as the main culprit).
However, judging by the reactions of Iran, Lebanon and Turkey, the key pro-Palestinian orientated countries in the Middle East see merit in extending the ceasefire and bringing about a cessation of hostilities. In other words, these Islamic countries propose to resolve the conflict by recognising the independence of Palestine within the 1967 borders, or perhaps within other borders based on the results of political negotiations, but with East Jerusalem as its capital and control over the sacred Al-Aqsa mosque.
The United States and Israel are interested in extending the terms of the truce according to the previously outlined scheme: each additional day of peace in exchange for 10 hostages from the remaining list. At the same time, Tel Aviv demonstrates its determination to immediately resume hostilities at the end of the truce period in order to completely destroy Hamas and fulfil the military and political objectives of the country’s leadership.
In fact, Hamas and the IDF are using the truce period to make up for losses in personnel, equipment, to bring in and stockpile ammunition and to regroup their forces.
Meanwhile, the pro-Iranian Houthi power groups in Yemen, while the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip lasts and the parties exchange hostages, are trying to capture new Israeli and other foreign merchant ships. As is known, on 19 November this year in the south of the Red Sea, Yemeni Houthis seized the cargo ship Galaxy Leader, owned by Israeli businessman Avraham Ungar, with a crew of 22 people.
Further in the Gulf of Aden on 26 November this year, the Houthis made another attempt to hijack the tanker Central Park with an international crew (including citizens of Bulgaria, Vietnam, Georgia, India, Russia, Turkey and the Philippines), but thanks to prompt action by the US destroyer USS Mason, supported by a Japanese Navy destroyer, the Houthi pirates were apprehended. In response, Yemen’s Ansar Allah movement issued a warning and a US Navy destroyer was subjected to a missile attack in the Arabian Sea by the Houthis. In particular, on the night of 27 November, two ballistic missiles were fired towards the very same destroyer USS Mason.
As we can see, the naval combat (piracy) tactics involving the Yemeni Houthis are obviously trying to fill the “humanitarian pause” in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And while Hamas is handing over hostages to Israel and seeking additional days of truce extension, the Houthis are trying to add hostages to the list of hostages for future pressure and bargaining with Israel and the U.S. through seizure of merchant ships, as well as to block the free navigation of U.S. Navy ships in the waters of the Arabian and Red Seas.
Thus, the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel has been maintained for the time being, as it is in the interests of the conflicting parties. Whether this will be followed by another truce in the sense of an extension of the initial period depends on Hamas and its agreement to the “10 additional hostages in exchange for a day of peace” scheme. However, whether the long-awaited, albeit “fragile” peace will come to this region is difficult to answer. Obviously, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Qatar and other Middle Eastern countries are extremely interested in this. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi generally believes that Hamas has already won the war. However, neither Israel nor the US will agree with this opinion. So, the point in the conflict of 7 October has not yet been reached.
Alexander SVARANTS – PhD of Political Science, Professor, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook».