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The war in Gaza may be approaching a new phase

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The war in Gaza could be quickly approaching a new phase, one that starts with a short-term pause in the fighting. Negotiators from the U.S., Israel, Egypt and Qatar are expected to meet in Paris to discuss the outlines of a deal. Joining us now is NPR international correspondent Aya Batrawy in Dubai. Hey, Aya.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what do we know as of now about this meeting in Paris, where some of this deal's getting discussed?

BATRAWY: Well, Hamas leaders in exile were in Cairo this week, and they appear to have dropped, or at least set aside for now, some of their previous demands. And now NPR has learned from Egyptian officials close to the talks that Hamas is now saying they would agree to a six-week truce. And during that truce, they would release 50 civilian hostages - so people taken in the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 - in exchange for around 3,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Now, there could also, during this period of time, be more aid into Gaza, humanitarian aid across the North and South. But crucially, Ailsa, what this would mean would be a sustained pause to a war that has dragged on now for close to five months. And there is a real race here to try and seal a deal before the start of Ramadan around March 10. This is a very sensitive holy month for Muslims. And the U.S. and Egypt - they're also trying to stave off an Israeli offensive into Rafah, which is the southernmost tip of Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians have been pushed, and they have nowhere left to flee.

CHANG: Well, this exchange that's being proposed - I mean, it sounds quite similar to the truce that took place in late November - right? - where we saw hostages from Israel freed in exchange for Palestinian detainees. How is this different from that?

BATRAWY: Well, that one was about a week long. This could be six weeks. And there is a push by mediators for this to be extended, so this could lay the groundwork for a permanent cease-fire.

CHANG: Wow.

BATRAWY: Now, Egyptian officials - they first floated this plan a few weeks ago, and it is built on three phases. So neither side would get everything all at once. Hamas is still holding a number of Israeli soldiers that it captured on October 7, and Israel has no immediate plans to withdraw its troops from Gaza. But there are efforts, you know, in the past that have faltered, like in January, when Israel assassinated Hamas' chief negotiator. But this time the White House is saying discussions are going well and have been described as constructive.

CHANG: One can only hope. Well, I know that another development is a plan that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just revealed, which he calls, quote, "the day after Hamas." What does this plan say?

BATRAWY: Right. So the Israeli Prime minister put forth this plan. Now, he is backed by a hardline right-wing coalition. And this plan, you know, is short on specifics, but the main points are that Israel would continue to operate militarily in Gaza without time limits. He says this would be to prevent further attacks. He also says Israel would carve out a buffer zone inside Gaza along the border with Israel - so inside Gazan territory. And he says Gaza would be governed by, quote, "local authorities with management experience." So this all leaves a lot of room for interpretation as negotiators go into these talks in Paris.

CHANG: Right. Well, much of what you just said appears to be at odds with the Biden administration. I mean, the president has offered unwavering support to Israel throughout this war but has also made clear that he backs a two-state solution, something that Netanyahu has publicly opposed quite explicitly. How has the U.S. responded to Netanyahu's plan?

BATRAWY: Well, today the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was asked to comment on Netanyahu's blueprint. And have a listen to some of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: There should be no Israeli re-occupation of Gaza. The size of Gaza's territory should not be reduced. So we want to make sure that any plan that emerges is consistent with those principles.

BATRAWY: Now, Blinken also said there are many countries in the region working together on a post-war plan for Gaza, including Gulf Arab states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They're going to be needed to help pay for the reconstruction of Gaza. But glaringly absent from Netanyahu's plan are the Palestinians themselves - what they want. And Gaza right now - it is in near-total ruins. You know, a lot of homes and hospitals and schools have been destroyed. People are in desperate need of aid. So there's real concern about the fate of the more than 2 million people in Gaza, the spread of disease, even if the war were to end today. And the question is whether this plan or any other addresses the root cause and brings lasting peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

CHANG: That is NPR's Aya Batrawy. Thank you so much, Aya.

BATRAWY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURREN$Y AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "GRAN TURISMO (FEAT. TERMANOLOGY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.