Egypt changed terms of Gaza ceasefire deal presented to Hamas, surprising negotiators, sources say

May 21, 2024, 4:31 PM

Israeli army tanks are seen in the central Gaza Strip on May 18. (Abdel Kareem Hana/AP via CNN News...

Israeli army tanks are seen in the central Gaza Strip on May 18. (Abdel Kareem Hana/AP via CNN Newsource)

(Abdel Kareem Hana/AP via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — Egyptian intelligence quietly changed the terms of a ceasefire proposal that Israel had already signed off on earlier this month, ultimately scuttling a deal that could have released Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners, and set a pathway to temporarily end the fighting in Gaza, according to three people familiar with the discussions.

The ceasefire agreement that Hamas ended up announcing on May 6 was not what the Qataris or the Americans believed had been submitted to Hamas for a potential final review, the sources said.

The changes made by Egyptian intelligence, the details of which have not been previously reported, led to a wave of anger and recrimination among officials from the US, Qatar and Israel, and left ceasefire talks at an impasse.

U.S. says Israel has agreed to the framework for a Gaza cease-fire. Hamas now must decide

“We were all duped,” one of those sources told CNN.

CIA Director Bill Burns, who has spearheaded the American efforts to broker a ceasefire agreement, was in the region when word reached him that the Egyptians had changed the terms of the deal. Burns was angry and embarrassed, the same person said, believing it made him look like he wasn’t in the loop or hadn’t informed the Israelis of the changes.

The soft-spoken and mild-mannered Burns “almost blew a gasket,” said the source.

A CIA spokesperson declined to comment.

The three sources familiar with the matter told CNN that a senior Egyptian intelligence official named Ahmed Abdel Khalek was responsible for making the changes. Abdel Khalek is a senior deputy to the Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, who has been Burns’ counterpart in leading Egypt’s mediation in the ceasefire talks.

One source familiar with the negotiations said Abdel Khalek told the Israelis one thing and Hamas another. More of Hamas’ demands were inserted into the original framework that Israel had tacitly agreed to in order to secure Hamas’ approval, the source said. But the other mediators were not informed; nor, critically, were the Israelis.

“Hamas was telling their people, ‘We will have a deal in place tomorrow,’” the first source said.

“All sides were under the assumption the Egyptians provided the same document” that Israel had signed off on and the other mediators, the US and Qatar, were aware of, the person said.

Instead, the second source said, the Egyptians sought to blur the lines between the original framework and Hamas’s response.

The Egyptian government did not respond to a request for comment.

A deal was close at hand

A Hamas document obtained by CNN outlining the version of the framework they agreed to included achieving a permanent ceasefire and a “sustainable calm” to be reached in the second phase of the three-stage deal. Israel has been averse to agreeing to discuss an end to the war before Hamas has been defeated and the remaining hostages are released from captivity.

Now, three weeks later, with ceasefire talks stalled, those involved are raising questions about the motives of Egypt, which for years has served as a key intermediary between Israel and Hamas, particularly Hamas members inside Gaza.

Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday if he was concerned about Egypt being involved with future ceasefire talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel was not prepared to agree to terms that would allow Hamas to attack Israel again. “I hope Egypt understands that we can’t agree to something like that.”

The changes came more than a week after a team of Egyptian negotiators flew to Israel in late April to hammer out some of the final details of a framework to provide for the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for a pause in fighting and the return of Palestinian prisoners.

Talks had been ongoing for months by then, since the last pause in the fighting fell apart in early December. With Israel agreeing for the most part to go farther than they previously had, there was a creeping sense of optimism taking hold that a deal was close at hand. Israel appeared willing to accept fewer hostages, release more Palestinian prisoners and allow Gazans in the southern part of the enclave to return home to the north unrestricted.

US officials emphasized how “extraordinarily generous on the part of Israel” the framework was, in the words of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

After discovering the Egyptian freelancing, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani informed Israel’s intelligence service Mossad that Egypt had acted alone, two of the sources told CNN.

Al Thani and CIA Director Burns got to work trying to salvage the proposal and re-balance it with elements they knew Israel would require.

“It doesn’t make sense,” a senior Biden administration official said of why Egyptian intelligence would try to push something through without the essential input from the others.

Changes made to appeal to Hamas

After the Egyptians came back from Israel and conferred with Hamas, it became clear the group wouldn’t go along with what Israel was agreeing to, one of the sources said. So the Egyptian official made significant changes to get Hamas to agree.

The day before Hamas made their May 6 public announcement agreeing to the proposal, an Egyptian source told CNN that Egypt had received Hamas’ response and relayed it to the Israeli side.

“Several alternatives and scenarios were proposed to overcome the main point of contention related to ending the war,” said the source.

The agreement’s language about ending the war has been perhaps the thorniest issue throughout the negotiations. But what Hamas sent back, Netanyahu said, “was very far from Israel’s core demands.”

It wasn’t long before the discussions stalled.

Negotiators, including Burns, returned to Cairo for one more round of indirect talks with Hamas. Israel agreed to send a team, as did Qatar, but neither sent senior officials, an indication that despite earlier optimism a deal would not be as imminent as hoped.

Two days after Hamas’ response on May 6, Burns returned to Washington and sources told CNN the talks were “paused.”

Mediators had hoped that a pause in the fighting would delay or even prevent a serious incursion into Rafah by Israel. Military operations by Israel in Rafah are now expanding despite protest by the Biden administration that they will threaten the hundreds of thousands of civilians who had fled there for safety.

If talks resume, it’s expected that the Qataris would play a bigger role in the next round, the second source familiar with the negotiations said. A re-launch of the negotiations does not appear imminent but if it were to happen Egypt would still be expected to be central given their essential proximity to Hamas, as well as Israel’s preference of Egypt to Qatar.

The discussions would still be expected to center on a broad framework that would include an initial stage in which up to 33 Israeli hostages would be released over at least 6 weeks. Hamas has been pushing to include the bodies of dead hostages in the initial release and also have the first phase flow into a second with no break. Both are positions Israel has resisted.

US officials have argued that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar doesn’t actually want a deal since he may think he’s winning and the greater the Palestinian suffering the more the world turns on Israel. Critics of Netanyahu, including families of Israeli hostages, have accused him of being more concerned with removing Hamas from Gaza than getting his citizens home.

This story has been updated with comments from Netanyahu.

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Egypt changed terms of Gaza ceasefire deal presented to Hamas, surprising negotiators, sources say