Gaza cease-fire remains elusive, but Hamas position may be easing

DOHA, Qatar — Starkly different visions of how to end the war in Gaza are at the center of thorny and slow-moving negotiations between Israel and Hamas in Doha this week, with officials warning that a deal to halt the fighting and release some hostages could be weeks away, or upended entirely if Israel moves ahead with a planned assault on the southern city of Rafah.

For months, Hamas has insisted on a negotiated end to the conflict, including a permanent cease-fire in exchange for the release of the hostages its fighters abducted from Israel on Oct. 7. Israel has vowed to continue the war until the group, which has controlled Gaza for 16 years, is eliminated. Any suspension of hostilities would be temporary, Israel says.

“This is not a negotiation that will end in days — it will end, maybe, in weeks,” said an Israeli official briefed on the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations.

Senior Hamas officials said Wednesday that Israel provided a “generally negative response” to their latest proposal. Speaking at a news conference in Beirut, Hamas official Osama Hamdan accused Israel of procrastinating “to hamper negotiations and, perhaps, lead them to a dead end.”

An Arab official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door negotiations, said technical teams were still in place. “We hope we can produce a counterproposal to Hamas before the end of the week,” the official said. Mediators must shuttle between the two sides, which do not meet face-to-face.

But even with talks currently at an impasse, Hamas may have softened its stance in recent weeks, suggesting it is open to an initial pause in fighting without the guarantee of a more durable cease-fire, according to a Western diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations.

“Hamas seems more willing to accept something less than previous weeks,” said the diplomat, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive talks.

The cease-fire negotiations come at a critical time for Gaza, where experts say a famine may already be unfolding in the north, and more than 1 million people displaced to Rafah await an Israeli assault.

“As we are preparing to enter Rafah, and this will take a little time; we are continuing to operate with full force,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a recorded video statement Wednesday.

Israel is under enormous pressure from the United States to abandon plans for a ground invasion of Rafah, where Israeli leaders say an operation is needed to destroy Hamas’s few remaining battalions. Netanyahu is sending a delegation to Washington for talks next week on how to battle Hamas without endangering civilians.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is also traveling to Israel on Friday, a State Department spokesman said, after stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “Blinken will discuss with the leadership of the Government of Israel the ongoing negotiations to secure the release of all hostages,” spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Mediators are working now with a proposal for a phased agreement that would start with a pause in fighting and eventually lead to a more comprehensive cease-fire.

The talks around the first phase are centered on Hamas freeing 35 civilian hostages held in Gaza, in exchange for a six-week pause in fighting and the release of about 350 Palestinians from prisons in Israel, according to the Western diplomat. Israel wants the first batch of hostages to include five female soldiers, whom Hamas considers to be of higher value, the Israeli official said.

The other Israeli official outlined additional stumbling blocks, including Hamas’s apparent refusal to provide a list of hostages who are still alive. There are also disputes over the Palestinian prisoners — some of whom are high-profile — whom Hamas wants released.

“I haven’t heard optimism in the room,” the Israeli official said. “What I’ve heard is that there is work to be done.”

Officials and diplomats, however, say that it can take as long as 36 hours to get messages to Yehiya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, who is overseeing negotiations from his hiding place. And even if Hamas offers significant concessions, some observers say it’s unclear whether there is political will in Israel for a deal.

“There is reason for a little bit of optimism because the Hamas answers indicated some flexibility,” said Gershon Baskin, who helped negotiate the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in 2011.

“But it’s not clear to me whether or not Netanyahu wants an agreement,” he said. “And that is evident by the fact that the negotiations are not being conducted by the highest level of negotiators.”

David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, departed Doha on Tuesday, Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari said, leaving an Israeli team in place to continue discussions.

A key Hamas demand includes allowing residents to return to northern Gaza, which Israel has cut off from the rest of the territory. But Israel says that’s a red line because Hamas is trying to regroup in areas the Israeli military has already cleared.

“We cannot stop the war. We cannot retreat from Gaza. We will not allow all the civilians to go back to the north,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, pointing to the Israeli military’s ongoing raid on al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which accuses Hamas of using hospitals as staging grounds for military activities, said Wednesday that it had killed approximately 90 “terrorists” in the area of the hospital and questioned over 300 people, during military operations it claimed had spared “harm to civilians, patients, medical teams, and medical equipment.”

Hamas, in a statement, said dozens of civilians had been executed by Israeli forces. Neither statement could be independently corroborated.

Mahmoud Bassal, a spokesman for Gaza’s Civil Defense said in a statement that “hundreds of wounded citizens” remained in the vicinity of the hospital.

Israel said Monday that the raid on al-Shifa had killed Faiq Mabhouh, whom the IDF identified as a senior official with Hamas’s internal security division and the coordinator of the group’s militant activities across Gaza.

The Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV network said Mabhouh was the director of police operations, who coordinated and protected aid deliveries. The Washington Post could not immediately confirm his role.

Police officers, who were civil servants under Hamas’s prewar government, played a key role guarding international aid convoys until last month, when Israel began targeting them.

On Wednesday, Israel announced it had killed four other Hamas officials, calling them “senior operatives” while also saying that they managed the organization’s activities in “humanitarian zones.”

Morris reported from Berlin, Fahim from Istanbul and Dadouch from Beirut. Karen DeYoung in Washington and Michael Birnbaum in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.

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