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

JERUSALEM — Mediators once again expressed hope that Israel and Hamas are moving toward a deal to end fighting in Gaza and free dozens of Israeli hostages. a last, best chance to prevent a return to full-scale war.

The signs of optimism came after Israel presented conditions to negotiators last week that softened its stance 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 cited in this report, the officials spoke on 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 hiding in tunnels beneath Gaza. Hamas negotiators are expected in Egypt on Monday. An Israeli official said the government was 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 Sunday evening. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit Israel on Wednesday as part of a new regional initiative aimed at securing the long-sought breakthrough.

On April 29, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Hamas to accept the Israeli proposal for a pause in 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 an extraordinarily, extraordinarily generous proposal from Israel,” Blinken said.

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

A former Egyptian official familiar with the talks said the initial truce would involve the release of 33 hostages, a figure echoed by Israeli media. Israel initially demanded the release of 40 people, while Hamas offered only 20 in its rejection of the latest proposal. Cameron said thousands of Palestinian prisoners could be released from Israeli jails in exchange.

But these figures are only one piece of a complex diplomatic puzzle. Hamas official in Turkey says a number of key points still need to be put in writing, including the return of Gazans displaced from the south to the north and the “complete” and permanent withdrawal of Israeli forces from the east-west corridor which divides the enclave. half.

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

Three weeks ago, international mediators last said a deal could be close, one of several times expectations have risen since a brief ceasefire was reached in November. Since then, negotiations have failed each time, with each side blaming the other for the collapse.

These latest efforts come amid rapidly evolving circumstances, including an imminent Israeli attack on Hamas’ last stronghold in Rafah, rumors of impending international arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, and Washington’s continued efforts to negotiate a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Everything is connected,” said the Israeli official close to the deliberations. “Maybe this time it will work.”

Egyptian officials who visited Israel for negotiations on Friday said they were encouraged to hear Israeli cabinet officials “for the first time” accept the idea of ​​a lasting end to the fighting and express their willingness to suspend the attack on Rafah if an agreement can be reached. reached, according to the former Egyptian official.

Israeli leaders have insisted that they cannot end the war in Gaza without targeting the remaining Hamas battalions, which they say are holed up in Rafah, where more than a few are also taking refuge. million civilians displaced. Signs of an imminent invasion are growing, including the recall of two reserve battalions and the construction of tent cities by Arab charities in areas where Israel hopes to keep people away from Rafah.

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

Washington told Netanyahu that the United States could not support a military invasion in Rafah that would not ensure the safety of displaced families. The administration has “yet to see 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 a deal. Daily protests are increasing. In one, a crowd of hundreds shouted Sunday outside the home of war cabinet member Benny Gantz.

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

Gantz, an opposition member who joined the emergency unity government five days after the Oct. 7 attacks, responded that any government that blocked a hostage deal “would not have the right to exist.” .

“The entry into Rafah is important in our long campaign against Hamas, but the return of the hostages captured on October 7 is much more important,” Gantz said in a statement.

While wary of threats of government overthrow from his far-right partners, Netanyahu may be willing to forgo an attack on Rafah and accept a longer-term ceasefire for a good hostage deal , according to the Israeli official.

“They will have to frame it differently, because internally they cannot call it a permanent ceasefire,” the official said.

Analysts have warned that statements coming or leaking from both sides could be little more than negotiating tactics. Hamas – which Blinken said on Monday was “the only thing standing against the people of Gaza and the ceasefire” – is under pressure from Qatar and Egypt to do demonstration of flexibility. Israel wants to demonstrate that it has done everything possible to reach an agreement before possibly establishing itself in Rafah.

Israel has also been rocked in recent days by rumors that the International Criminal Court in The Hague may be poised to issue arrest warrants for Netanyahu and other senior Israeli leaders as part of an investigation into possible war crimes committed by Israel and Palestinian militants.

The ICC declined to comment on the reports Monday, and it remains unclear where Israeli officials obtained 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 on Sunday ordered its embassies around the world to be on alert in the event of anti-Israeli demonstrations.

“This raises a lot of fear,” the Israeli official said.

The main risk for Israeli officials will be related to travel, said Eliav Lieblich, an international law expert at Tel Aviv University. “It is worth remembering that the ICC can also issue secret arrest warrants, which could create a more general deterrent effect,” he said.

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

“It’s not enough,” Blinken said Monday. “We still need more aid in and around Gaza. »

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

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