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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel appears to soften stance in cease-fire talks



Israeli tanks and soldiers are seen returning from Gaza to a staging area at the Erez border crossing in Israel during an escorted tour by the military for international journalists on Dec. 15, 2023. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

By Patrick Kingsley and Adam Rasgon


Israel has reduced the number of hostages it wants Hamas to free during the first phase of a new truce in the Gaza Strip, according to three Israeli officials, offering a hint of hope for cease-fire negotiations that could restart as soon as Tuesday.


For months, Israel had demanded that Hamas release at least 40 hostages — women, older people and those who are seriously ill — to secure a new truce. Now the Israeli government is prepared to settle for only 33, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.


The change was prompted partly by the fact that Israel now believes that some of the 40 have died in captivity, according to one of the officials.


The shift has raised expectations that Hamas and Israel might be edging closer to sealing their first truce since a weeklong cease-fire in November, when Hamas released 105 captives in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. A senior Hamas official, Izzat al-Rishq, said on social media Monday that Hamas was studying a new Israeli proposal but did not say what the proposal was.


Hamas and its allies captured roughly 240 Israelis and foreigners in their attack Oct. 7, which prompted Israel to go to war in Gaza. More than 130 hostages are believed to still be held in Gaza, but some are thought to have died.


Negotiations over a new pause, mediated by Egypt and Qatar, have stalled for months over disagreements about the number of hostages and prisoners who should be exchanged in a future deal. Another obstacle has been whether Israel would allow civilians from northern Gaza who fled the Israeli invasion to return to their homes and how many would be permitted to do so.


The length of a cease-fire has also been a key stumbling block. Hamas wants it to be permanent, while Israel wants another temporary pause so that it could still send troops into Rafah, the last major Gaza city under Hamas control, though one where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians have sought shelter. Far-right members of Israel’s governing coalition have threatened to bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government if the war ends without Hamas’ total defeat.


A mid-ranking Israeli delegation is planning to fly to Cairo on Tuesday to restart talks mediated by Egypt, but only if Hamas also agrees to attend, according to two of the Israeli officials.


Hamas did not respond to a request for comment about Israel’s offer and whether it will send representatives to talks in Cairo.


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the World Economic Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Monday that Israel had made an “extraordinarily generous” offer and that Hamas alone stood in the way of a deal. Foreign Minister David Cameron of Britain said at the same conference that the offer included a sustained 40-day cease-fire and the release of potentially thousands of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the Israeli hostages.


Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, said at the conference that he was “hopeful” about the latest cease-fire proposal but did not say what it involved or who had proposed it.


“The proposal has taken into account the positions of both sides,” Shoukry said, adding that “we are waiting to have a final decision.”

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