Hamas leader says examining Gaza ceasefire proposal in ‘positive spirit’

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Hamas said it would send negotiators back to Cairo “as soon as possible” to resume talks on the latest proposal to secure the release of Israeli hostages and halt the war in Gaza, after the US said “the time is now” to reach an agreement.

In his first public comments since mediators presented the plan to Hamas, the militant group’s political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, “stressed the positive spirit of the movement in studying the ceasefire proposal”.

Haniyeh’s statement came as the US, Egypt and Qatar, which are facilitating indirect talks between Hamas and Israel, stepped up the pressure on the warring parties to get a deal over the line.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken this week said the proposal before Hamas was “extraordinarily generous on the part of Israel” and urged the group to “get this done”.

Haniyeh, who spoke with Egyptian and Qatari officials, said that Hamas was agreeing to continue talks with the aim of reaching an agreement “to achieve the demands of our people and stop the aggression against them”.

Mediators’ hopes were raised at the start of the week after Israel appeared to soften its stance on some of the key conditions for a deal.

But important questions remain, including whether Israel will agree to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza and withdraw troops from the besieged enclave — two key Hamas demands.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that a planned offensive on the southern Gazan city of Rafah, where more than 1mn people have taken sanctuary, would proceed whether a deal with Hamas was reached or not. 

Mediators are concerned that his insistence on carrying out an assault on Rafah, despite UN and western warnings that it would be disastrous in such a densely populated area, could dim prospects of a breakthrough in the hostage talks.

Netanyahu is also facing mounting pressure from far-right members of his governing coalition not to halt the Israeli offensive in Gaza that has now lasted more than six months and began in the wake of Hamas’s deadly October 7 attack.

The latest proposal sets out a multi-phase process that would bring about an initial six-week pause in the fighting during which Hamas would release 33 hostages, according to diplomats briefed on the talks.

These would include children, the elderly, women — including female soldiers — and wounded captives. That would be followed by a second phase that calls for “restoring a sustainable calm”, in wording proposed by the US, one diplomat said.

Mediators hope this will overcome the main hurdle to a deal: Hamas’s insistence on a permanent ceasefire at the end of any arrangement, which Israel has repeatedly rejected. 

The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hamas ally Hizbollah, also reported that the proposal included a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces from the heart of the Gaza Strip in order to allow displaced Palestinians in the south to return to their homes and neighbourhoods in the north.

The proposal says Israel would release 20 Palestinian prisoners for every civilian hostage, and 40 for each female soldier released.

The stakes of a deal were underlined in a UN report released on Thursday that said if the war ended today, it would take until 2040 to rebuild all the homes destroyed in the fighting in Gaza. The report also warned that the damage to the economy will set back development for generations.

Hamas seized about 250 people during its October 7 attack that killed 1,200 people, according to Israel. Israel’s retaliatory offensive on Gaza has killed more than 34,000 people, say Palestinian health officials, and severely depleted Hamas’s military capability.

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