US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators prepared a diplomatic push to bridge differences between Israel and Hamas on a ceasefire plan for Gaza after the Palestinian group responded to a proposal for an extended pause in fighting and hostage releases.
Hamas on Tuesday replied to a framework drawn up more than a week ago by US and Israeli spy chiefs at a meeting in Paris with the Egyptians and Qataris.
Details of the response were not disclosed. In a statement Hamas said on Tuesday it responded “in a positive spirit, ensuring a comprehensive and complete ceasefire, ending the aggression against our people, ensuring relief, shelter, and reconstruction, lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip, and achieving a prisoner swap.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on a lightning tour of the Middle East, said he would discuss the Hamas response with Israeli officials when he visits the country on Wednesday.
In Doha, Blinken said, “There’s still a lot of work to do… but we continue to believe that an agreement is possible, and indeed essential.”
Qatar described the Hamas response as “positive” overall while Egyptian security sources told Reuters that Hamas showed flexibility.
“We will discuss all the details of the proposed framework with the concerned parties to reach an agreement on the final formula as soon as possible,” Diaa Rashwan, head of Egypt’s State Information Service, was quoted as saying.
Sources close to the talks have said the truce would last at least 40 days, during which the militants would free civilians among the remaining hostages they hold.
Further phases would follow, to hand over soldiers and dead bodies of hostages, in exchange for releases of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. The truce would also increase the flow of food and other aid to Gaza’s desperate civilians who are facing hunger and dire shortages of basic supplies.
US President Joe Biden said the Hamas response showed “some movement” toward a deal. But it was unclear if either Hamas or Israel were willing to soften their stated hardline positions in order to reach a truce agreement.
A Hamas official who asked not to be identified reiterated to Reuters earlier on Tuesday that the Palestinian movement would not allow any hostage releases without guarantees that the war would end and Israeli forces leave Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted Israel will not end its Gaza campaign until Hamas is wiped out and has ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state.
Saudi Arabia has told the US its position stands that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognised on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem, and Israeli “aggression” in Gaza stops, the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia put US-backed plans to normalise ties with Israel on ice, sources familiar with Riyadh’s thinking told Reuters in Oct, 2023, as the war between Palestinian militant group Hamas and Israeli forces escalated.
More hostages may be dead
There is a growing Israeli movement demanding more effort to bring the hostages home, even if that means a deal with Hamas.
Israel’s military said on Tuesday that 31 of the remaining hostages in Gaza had been pronounced dead. Israel previously said 136 hostages were still in Gaza after 110 were freed under a seven-day November truce when Israel also released 240 Palestinians it was holding.
Citing an Israeli assessment shared with US and Egyptian officials, the Wall Street Journal reported that as many as 50 hostages could be dead, leaving about 80 hostages alive.
Israel began its military offensive in Gaza after militants from Hamas-ruled Gaza killed 1,200 people and took 253 hostages in southern Israel on Oct 7.
Gaza’s Health Ministry says at least 27,585 Palestinians have been confirmed killed in Israel’s military campaign, with thousands more feared buried under rubble.
On the ground in Gaza, Israeli forces on Tuesday kept up pressure on Khan Younis, the main southern city they have been trying to capture for weeks. At least 14 people were killed by air strikes, Palestinian residents and medics said.
Rafah, just south of it, was also hit by air strikes and tank shelling. Two people were killed in a strike on a house in Rafah while six policemen died after their car was hit, Gaza health officials said.
Israeli leaders vowed last week to push into Rafah next, alarming international aid agencies who say a million displaced civilians would be in harm’s way, pinned against the border fence with Egypt.