Hopes rise for new ceasefire talks in Gaza as Israel scales back demands

Israeli negotiators, offering a hint of hope for negotiations on a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, have reduced the number of hostages they want Hamas to release during the first phase of the truce, three Israeli officials said on Monday.

For weeks, ceasefire talks remained at a standstill. Now, with the new proposal in hand, a mid-ranking Israeli delegation planned to fly to Cairo on Tuesday to resume work, but only if Hamas agrees to participate, according to two officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

Hamas did not respond to a request for comment on whether it plans to send representatives to Cairo. A senior Hamas official said on social media on Monday that the group was studying a new Israeli proposal.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who met in Saudi Arabia with Arab diplomats on Monday, said the burden now falls on Hamas.

“Hamas has an extraordinarily generous proposal from Israel before it,” Blinken said at an economic forum in Riyadh. “And at the moment, the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas.”

Speaking at the same forum, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the offer included an extended 40-day ceasefire and the release of potentially thousands of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel in exchange for hostages held by Hamas.

Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said he was “confident” about the latest ceasefire offer, although he did not say what it entails or who made it.

In an effort to increase pressure on Hamas leaders to accept the ceasefire agreement, President Biden planned to speak with the leaders of Egypt and Qatar on Monday.

But other serious obstacles may remain, including Hamas's demand for a permanent ceasefire and Israel's insistence on its goal of eradicating the militants, including in their last bastion in the southern city of Rafah.

And there was also concern that ceasefire talks could be disrupted if the International Criminal Court issues arrest warrants for senior Israeli government officials on charges related to the conflict with Hamas, as Israeli and foreign officials believe is underway. The warrants could also name Hamas officials.

Hamas and its allies captured some 240 Israelis and foreigners in the deadly Oct. 7 attack that started the war. During a week-long ceasefire in November, Hamas released 105 prisoners in exchange for the detention of 240 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

In recent months, Israel has asked Hamas to release at least 40 more hostages – women, elderly and seriously ill people – to guarantee a new truce. He is now prepared to settle for just 33, Israeli officials said.

According to one of the officials, the change was partly caused by the fact that Israel now believes that some of the 40 died in captivity.

Even as expectations grew that Hamas and Israeli negotiators might be moving closer to their first truce since the November ceasefire, their fighters persisted.

In Gaza, Israeli airstrikes flattened concrete buildings overnight, according to news agencies, which published videos of rows of body bags on Monday. The Reuters news agency said the attacks killed 20 people.

The Israeli military released a statement on Monday saying its “fighter jets struck terrorist targets where terrorists were operating within a civilian area in southern Gaza.”

More than a million Gazans have crowded into shelters and tents in Rafah to seek safety from the Israeli military offensive.

One survivor, carrying a child who she said had been pulled from the rubble, told a Reuters video reporter that the child appeared to be unharmed, but that his parents had been killed.

“Look at us with a certain compassion, with a certain humanity,” said the woman, Umm Fayez Abu Taha. “That's all we ask. We don't ask for much: just put an end to the war, nothing more.”

In northern Israel, a salvo of Hamas rockets came across the border from Lebanon. The Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said in a statement that they had targeted an Israeli military position in Kiryat Shmona, the largest city in Israel's far north, with a “concentrated rocket barrage.”

Although Hamas is based in Gaza, many of its leaders live in exile in Lebanon, where the group has a sizable presence. Since the war began, Hamas has occasionally launched rocket attacks from there into northern Israel, although its ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, has launched many more. Both groups are supported by Iran.

Monday's rocket fire, which reportedly caused little damage, was likely an attempt by Hamas to signal that it was “still part of the fight,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center based in Beirut.

After arriving in Riyadh shortly after dawn, Secretary of State Blinken met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, and then with foreign ministers and top foreign policy advisers from five other Arab nations. Mr. Blinken spoke with them about the war and the challenges he created, from the arrival of humanitarian aid in Gaza to the release of hostages.

The US secretary of state and the Saudi foreign minister also spoke of greater regional integration and “a path towards a Palestinian state with security guarantees for Israel”, reads the State Department summary. Later in the day, Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto leader, and then attended a working dinner with officials from five Arab and five European nations to discuss the war. She was scheduled to travel to Jordan and Israel on Tuesday.

At best, the Biden administration expects Saudi Arabia and perhaps some other Arab nations to agree to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. In exchange, Saudi Arabia would receive advanced weapons and security guarantees, including a mutual defense treaty, from the United States and a commitment to U.S. cooperation on a civilian nuclear program in the kingdom.

For its part, Israel should commit to a concrete path toward establishing a Palestinian nation, with specific deadlines, American and Saudi officials say.

At the economic forum in Saudi Arabia, Cameron, the British Foreign Secretary, said that for the conflict to end something else had to happen: “Those responsible for October 7, the leadership of Hamas, should leave Gaza.”

Reporting contribution was provided by Viviana Nereim, Liam Stack, Euan Ward, Hwaida Saad, Jonathan Rosen AND Zolan Kanno-Youngs.

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