Hamas Softens Demand for Permanent Cease-Fire in Truce Talks, Officials Say

Hamas is no longer demanding that Israel immediately agree to a permanent cease-fire in return for beginning a hostage and prisoner exchange, according to people familiar with the negotiations.

Hamas’s new proposal would allow the release of hostages in exchange for a phased pullback of Israeli troops from parts of the Gaza Strip as well as prisoner releases. By modifying demands for an outright end of hostilities, the new proposal could possibly restart negotiations.

The White House welcomed the new Hamas proposal and confirmed that talks would resume soon in Doha, Qatar, although without an American delegation present. “We’re cautiously optimistic that things are moving in a good direction but that doesn’t mean it’s done and we’re going to have to stick with it until the very end,” said John F. Kirby, a national security communications adviser for the White House.

The United States has been applying pressure on Hamas to resume talks and ease its demands. Various negotiating parties have been offering Gaza more promises of humanitarian aid and issuing vague threats to close down Hamas’s political office in Doha.

While publicly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was dismissive of the new proposal, other Israeli officials have reacted more positively, given that last week Hamas refused to offer terms for a hostage swap.

Negotiators, including senior Israeli intelligence officials, could arrive in Doha as early as Sunday, according to an official in the region.

While saying he did not want to negotiate from the White House podium, Mr. Kirby suggested that the Hamas proposal fit the framework that Israel, Qatar, Egypt and the United States agreed to in talks in Paris last month.

“I would say the proposal that was put forward is certainly within the bounds of — in broad brush strokes — within the bounds of the deal that we’ve been working on for several months,” he said. “But the devil’s in the details.”

Another U.S. official and the official in the region said that while gaps between the warring parties need to be closed, the new proposal was the first positive step in some time, and it was significant that Hamas was no longer demanding a permanent cease-fire.

In the first phase of an agreement, under the Hamas proposal, Israeli troops would pull back toward central Gaza, allowing some civilians to return to their homes, according to an Israeli official briefed on the proposal.

Under the Hamas proposal, Israel would have to agree to the release of more Palestinians from prison than the U.S.-backed proposal had offered.

The initial exchange of hostages would include the remaining five female hostages, in addition to 35 men who are old, sick or injured. Hamas is demanding the release of 350 Palestinian prisoners for the men. It wants 50 prisoners, including 30 sentenced to life in prison, for each of the women. The earlier American-backed proposal had said 15 prisoners convicted of serious acts of terrorism would be released for the female prisoners.

The first phase would last a few weeks. During the second phase, male prisoners would be released in return for a further cessation of hostilities. In the final stage, Hamas would return the bodies of hostages who have died and Israel would ease the blockade of Gaza, according to the Hamas proposal.

Israel has resisted any agreement to end its military campaign. American officials have been pushing to begin exchanges in return for a temporary halt in fighting as the only formula that can work.

Details of the Hamas proposal were earlier reported by Al Jazeera.

The various parties had been discussing for weeks a broader three-phase approach to the release of all hostages held by Hamas and its allies, including the bodies of deceased hostages. Israel and the United States wanted to focus negotiations on the first phase, involving releases of certain hostages for a number of Palestinian prisoners. But as part of those focused talks, Hamas had insisted that Israel commit to a permanent cease-fire after all three phases, which became a major point of contention, since Israel refuses to accede to that.

Edward Wong contributed reporting from Washington.

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