Hamas Studies a Gaza Cease-Fire Offer From Israel, and Hints at Progress

A Hamas leader said Thursday that the group would soon send a delegation to Cairo to “complete ongoing discussions” on a cease-fire deal for the war in the Gaza Strip, raising hopes of progress in the stalled efforts for a truce.

The latest cease-fire proposal, which has been forcefully pushed by the Biden administration in recent days, comes after nearly seven devastating months of war. The deal would include a weekslong temporary truce — the exact duration is unclear — and the release of hostages held by Hamas and Palestinian prisoners in Israel. It would also allow the return of civilians to the largely depopulated northern part of Gaza, and enable increased delivery of aid to the territory.

Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas’ political wing, said the group was studying the latest proposal from Israel, which includes some Israeli concessions, with a “positive spirit.” A Hamas delegation will go to Egypt soon to seek a deal that “realizes our people’s demands and ends the aggression,” according to a statement by the group.

Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Thursday.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Less than a day earlier, a Hamas spokesman, Osama Hamdan, had said on Lebanese television that “our position on the current negotiating paper is negative.” But the Hamas press office later said the group had not yet stated an official position, and that Mr. Hamdan’s comment was not an outright rejection of the proposal.

In Israel, the war cabinet met Thursday evening to discuss the negotiations, as well as a planned Israeli invasion of Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, where around a million people have been sheltering, according to an Israeli official who was not authorized to communicate with the media and requested anonymity.

The war cabinet meeting came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing competing pressures from diverse Israeli political factions on the future course of the war. Earlier in the day, he hinted at internal discord in comments at a ceremony commemorating the deaths of members of a Jewish militia in Palestine before the creation of Israel.

“There were and there remain disagreements among us,” Mr. Netanyahu said elliptically. Later in his remarks he said, “We will do what it takes to win and overpower our enemies, including in Rafah.”

The anticipated offensive is a seemingly intractable sticking point in the cease-fire talks.

“If the enemy carries out the Rafah operation, negotiations will stop,” Mr. Hamdan said on Wednesday. “The resistance does not negotiate under fire.”

Israelis in Ashdod this week mourning a soldier killed in Gaza.Credit…Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The complex cease-fire negotiations have dragged on for months, with each bargaining piece moved also shifting several others. Complicating matters further is that Israel and the United States do not talk directly with Hamas, which they consider a terrorist organization, communicating instead through officials of Egypt and Qatar.

The Biden administration has pressed the Israeli government hard to abandon the idea of a major invasion of Rafah, warning of immense civilian casualties, and to rely instead on surgical operations to kill or capture Hamas leaders and fighters. A ground offensive could hurt both Israel’s fraying relationship with Washington and its international standing, already damaged by its conduct of the war.

Some members ofMr. Netanyahu’s coalition have threatened to quit if the Rafah operation is suspended. Israeli officials have said, consistently and emphatically, that the offensive will take place, and that is intended to root out Hamas battalions they say are embedded there and to destroy it as a fighting force.

Mr. Netanyahu said earlier in the week that the Rafah incursion would happen “with or without” a cease-fire deal.

On a visit to Israel on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken put the onus squarely on Hamas to accept the Israeli proposal. “We are determined to get a cease-fire that brings the hostages home and to get it now, and the only reason that that wouldn’t be achieved is because of Hamas,” he said.

The Israeli opposition leader, Yair Lapid, has put the focus on Mr. Netanyahu, saying this week that the prime minister had “no political excuse” not to make a cease-fire deal quickly.

Israeli families of hostages held by Hamas blocking a highway on Wednesday. Credit…Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

Hamas has insisted that any agreement eventually lead to a permanent cease-fire, not just a temporary halt in the fighting — a stance that Israel has rejected as a Hamas play for time to re-establish itself as a governing and military force. The Biden administration has held out hope that a pause in the war could be the first step toward a lasting end to the fighting.

Israel this week softened some of its positions.

It agreed to allow Palestinians to return to northern Gaza en masse in the first phase of a cease-fire after previously insisted on screening returnees and limiting their flow. It also backed away from its demand that Hamas release 40 hostages — female civilians and soldiers, and those who ill or aged — after Hamas indicated that it did not have 40 hostages in those categories who are still alive. The latest proposal lowers the figure to 33. The number of Palestinians Israel is offering to free in exchange is unclear.

In the Hamas-led Oct. 7 assault on Israel, about 250 people were kidnapped and taken back to Gaza, according to the Israeli government. More than 100 were released in a weeklong cease-fire in November, but Israeli officials say they believe that more than 30 others — possibly many more — are dead.

The Oct. 7 attacks killed some 1,200 people, Israel has said. Gazan health officials say that Israel’s subsequent bombing and invasion have killed more than 34,000 people, injured far more, displaced most of the enclave’s 2.2 million people and destroyed many of their homes.

Thomas Fuller reported from San Francisco. Edward Wong and Damien Cave contributed reporting.

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