Parties see hope for a Gaza cease-fire: ‘Maybe this time it will work’

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JERUSALEM — Mediators expressed hope Monday, once again, that Israel and Hamas were inching toward an agreement to halt fighting in Gaza and release dozens of Israeli hostages, a last, best chance to prevent a return to full-scale war.

The signs of optimism came after Israel presented terms to negotiators last week that softened its position and “broke new ground,” according to an Israeli official familiar with the deliberations. “There is hope,” a Hamas official in Turkey told The Washington Post, but he cautioned that key points require clarification. Like others quoted in this report, the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive and ongoing diplomacy.

Any final decision rests with the militant group’s leader, Yehiya Sinwar, who is believed to be in hiding in the tunnels beneath Gaza. Hamas negotiators are expected in Egypt on Monday. An Israeli official said the government is preparing to send its own negotiators after the Passover holiday.

President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the talks in a phone call late Sunday. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit Israel on Wednesday as part of a renewed regional push to secure the long-sought breakthrough.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on April 29 called for Hamas to accept Israel’s proposal for a pause to the fighting in Gaza. (Video: World Economic Forum)

Speaking at a World Economic Forum event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Blinken described a “major effort” involving Qatar, Egypt and others. “Right now … Hamas has before it a proposal that is extraordinarily, extraordinarily generous on the part of Israel,” Blinken said.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, also in Riyadh, said the deal on the table was for a “sustained” 40-day cease-fire, roughly in line with the six-week pause that negotiators say they have been working toward for months.

A former Egyptian official with knowledge of the talks has said the initial truce would involve the release of 33 hostages, a figure echoed in Israeli media. Israel had originally demanded the release of 40, while Hamas offered just 20 in its rejection of the last proposal. Cameron said thousands of Palestinian prisoners could be freed from Israeli jails in exchange.

But those figures are just one piece of a complex diplomatic puzzle. The Hamas official in Turkey said a number of essential points have yet to be put in writing, including the return of displaced Gazans from south to north and the “complete” and permanent withdrawal of Israeli forces from an east-west corridor that divides the enclave in half.

“The most important thing for Hamas is the withdrawal of Israeli troops and the end of the war,” the official added.

It was three weeks ago that international mediators last said a deal could be near, one of several times that expectations have spiked since a brief cease-fire was reached in November. The talks fell short each time since, with each side blaming the other for the collapse.

The latest efforts come amid fast-shifting circumstances, including a looming Israeli assault on Hamas’s final stronghold in Rafah, rumors of imminent international arrest warrants for Israeli leaders and ongoing efforts by Washington to broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Everything is linked together,” said the Israeli official familiar with the deliberations. “Maybe this time it will work.”

Egyptian officials who visited Israel for talks on Friday said they were encouraged to hear Israeli cabinet officials “for the first time” accept the idea of a long-lasting halt to the fighting and express willingness to hold off on attacking Rafah if a deal can be reached, according to the former Egyptian official.

Israeli leaders have been adamant that they cannot wrap up the war in Gaza without going after the final Hamas battalions they say are holed up in Rafah, where more than 1 million displaced civilians are also sheltering. Signs of an impending invasion are mounting, including the call-up of two reserve battalions and the construction of tent cities by Arab charities in areas where Israel hopes to draw people away from Rafah.

Israeli airstrikes in the city Monday killed at least 20 people, Gaza health authorities said. Mohammad al-Mughir, a spokesman for Gaza’s Civil Defense agency, said crews were working to find survivors trapped under the rubble. In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces said it struck “targets where terrorists were operating within a civilian area.”

Washington has told Netanyahu the United States cannot support a military invasion in Rafah that does not provide for the safety of displaced families. The administration has “not yet seen a plan that gives us confidence that civilians can be effectively protected,” Blinken said Monday.

The Israeli government is under intense pressure from hostage families to reach an accord. Daily protests are growing. About 2,000 protesters packed the streets near Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv Monday, lighting fires and threatening to block a major highway amid a heavy police presence.

Moderates have become more willing to push back on government hard-liners who call for continuing military action over peace talks. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, for example, told Israeli media Sunday that reaching a deal in Cairo would amount to a “humiliating surrender.”

Gantz, a member of the opposition who joined the emergency unity government five days after the attacks of Oct. 7, responded that any government that blocked a hostage deal “would have no right to exist.”

“Entering Rafah is important in our long campaign against Hamas, but the return of the hostages captured on October 7 is of much greater importance,” Gantz said in a statement.

While wary of threats to topple the government from his far-right partners, Netanyahu might be willing to forgo a Rafah assault and agree to a longer-term cease-fire for the right hostage deal, according to the Israeli official.

“They will have to frame it differently, because internally they can’t call it a permanent cease-fire,” the official said.

Analysts warned that statements coming or leaking from both sides may be little more than negotiating tactics. Hamas — which Blinken said Monday was “the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and cease-fire” — is under pressure from Qatar and Egypt to show flexibility. Israel wants to demonstrate that it did everything possible to reach a deal before possibly moving into Rafah.

Israel has also been roiled in recent days by rumors that the International Criminal Court in The Hague may be about to issue arrest warrants for Netanyahu and other top Israeli leaders in connection with an investigation into possible war crimes by Israel and Palestinian militants.

The ICC declined to comment on the reports Monday, and it remained unclear where Israeli officials got their information.

Netanyahu tweeted Friday that Israel “will never accept any attempt by the ICC to undermine its inherent right of self-defense,” and the country’s Foreign Ministry directed its embassies around the world Sunday to be on alert for anti-Israel protests.

“There is a great deal of fear about it,” the Israeli official said.

The key risk for Israeli officials will relate to travel, said Eliav Lieblich, an expert in international law at Tel Aviv University. “It should be recalled that the ICC can also issue secret arrest warrants, which could create a more general chilling effect,” he said.

Under mounting international legal pressure, Israel has stepped up efforts in recent weeks to deliver humanitarian relief to Gaza, Lieblich said. U.S. officials have touted the progress but say they are pushing for more.

“It is not enough,” Blinken said Monday. “We still need to get more aid in and around Gaza.”

Morris reported from Berlin. Hazem Balousha in Cairo, Heidi Levine in Tel Aviv and Missy Ryan in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.

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