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Blinken in Israel as Hamas presents cease-fire counteroffer

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TEL AVIV — Hamas has called for a three-stage cease-fire deal that would see it release Israeli hostages, alive and dead, over a more than four-month period in exchange for the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, according to the leaked text of its response to a truce proposal verified by The Washington Post on Wednesday.

Details of the Hamas reply emerged as Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel to clinch a deal to pause hostilities, bring home the hostages and deliver desperately needed humanitarian relief to the civilian population in Gaza, which has been under Israeli siege and bombardment for four months. Israel is likely to take issue with key aspects of the Hamas response.

Under the broad framework of the deal, hashed out by negotiators from the United States, Qatar, Israel and Egypt in Paris last month, an initial pause in fighting would last for six weeks and bring about the release of all civilian hostages held by the militant group in Gaza. Israel would release three Palestinian prisoners for every one hostage Hamas frees.

Hamas gives ‘positive’ reply to proposal for hostage release deal

Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said Tuesday evening that Hamas had delivered a “positive” reply after a week of deliberation, and Qatar had passed it along to Israel. The promising signals Tuesday night brought hope to families of Israeli hostages and to civilians in Gaza who are displaced, hungry and under constant threat of Israeli attack.

But Israel and Hamas remain far apart on key aspects of the framework, including which Palestinian prisoners would be eligible for release and whether Israeli troops would withdraw from parts of the Gaza Strip during the pause.

Hamas has previously said it wants any hostage deal to result in a permanent cease-fire, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to fight on until “total victory” in Gaza. The militant group’s counter-proposal is less definitive about a permanent cease-fire — one of the reasons some officials familiar with the negotiations are touting progress in the talks

The text of the Hamas response, published by the Hezbollah-aligned al-Akhbar newspaper Wednesday and verified to The Washington Post by two Hamas officials, envisions in three phases, each lasting 45 days, the release of Israeli hostages and the remains of Israelis who were killed.

In the first phase, both sides would pause fighting, and Hamas and other Gaza militant groups would free Israeli nonmilitary hostages, including women, children, and the elderly and sick. In exchange, Hamas has demanded the release of all Palestinian women, children, men over 50 years old and sick inmates held in Israeli prisons, in addition to 1,500 male Palestinian prisoners, 500 of whom Hamas would choose from among inmates serving life or long-term sentences.

During the initial stage, Israeli troops should withdraw from populated areas; at least 500 trucks of humanitarian aid should enter Gaza each day; displaced Gazans should be able to return to their homes and move around the strip freely; Israel should allow more wounded Palestinians to seek medical treatment abroad; and hospitals should be repaired and shelters built, according to the Hamas counteroffer.

The second phase would see militants release all male Israeli hostages in exchange for additional Palestinian prisoner releases and the complete withdrawal of Israel forces from Gaza. The Hamas reply says talks to pave the way to “the return of a state of complete calm” must occur before this stage.

During the final 45-day phase, Hamas would return the remains of Israelis in exchange for the bodies of Palestinians held by Israel.

About 100 hostages are believed to still be alive, and Israeli officials say that Hamas is holding at least 31 dead bodies. The “vast majority” of the dead were killed during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in southern Israel, according to a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces. During a previous pause in the fighting in November, 105 hostages — 81 Israelis and 24 foreign nationals — were released.

The Israeli government has been under intense pressure from many families of hostages to bring their loved ones home. But other families back calls by far-right officials to continue fighting until Hamas is eradicated from the Gaza Strip.

The Hamas response to the negotiations indicates a willingness by the movement to make some concessions: Hamas officials previously said they wouldn’t discuss a hostage deal without a permanent cease-fire as a precondition to talks. But other components — particularly the demand that Israeli troops withdraw from the Gaza Strip after the initial six-week pause — are likely to be nonstarters for Israel.

Israel says it will expand operations in Rafah, Gaza’s last refuge

Israel has indicated it has no intention of winding down its military campaign in Gaza, which has killed more than 27,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has said repeatedly in recent days that Israel will continue its ground offensive in Rafah, the only part of Gaza that Israeli troops have not yet reached.

More than a million Palestinians are crammed into the tiny strip of land along the border with Egypt. Many are living in unsanitary conditions in tents or makeshift structures, struggling to find food or receive medical treatment. Israel has intensified its bombing of Rafah this week, with five attacks killing 12 people in the area on Tuesday alone. Displaced civilians say there is nowhere left for them to go.

Blinken’s trip to Israel caps his fifth visit to the Middle East since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack killed more than 1,200 Israelis, sparking Israel’s retaliatory war in Gaza. On Monday and Tuesday, Blinken met with top officials in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar to discuss efforts to reach a cease-fire deal and to de-escalate tensions in the region.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we continue to believe that an agreement is possible and, indeed, essential,” Blinken said at a news conference in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday evening.

A 6-year-old in Gaza City was calling to be rescued. Did anyone find her?

In Israel, Blinken is scheduled to attend back-to-back meetings with Netanyahu, senior defense officials and Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and is expected to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

The Biden administration is under significant domestic and international pressure to push Israel to end the war or do more to avoid civilian casualties and increase the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid to the besieged enclave. Washington also aims to keep a lid on attacks by Iranian proxies across the region in response to Israel’s war in Gaza, at what Blinken warned last week is the most dangerous moment in the Middle East “since at least 1973” — a reference to the last major war between Israel and neighboring countries.

If a six-week pause takes hold, it would be the longest cessation of hostilities since the war began four months ago. The United States hopes that the initial pause would pave the way to a more permanent resolution to the conflict. Washington is pushing for that settlement to include a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a foreign policy priority of the Biden administration before the Oct. 7 attack roiled the region.

But Riyadh on Wednesday made clear it would only begin diplomatic relations with Israel if “all Israeli occupation forces withdraw from the Gaza Strip” and a viable Palestinian state is established.

“The Kingdom has communicated its firm position to the U.S. administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognized on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” a statement from the Foreign Ministry said.

Hazem Balousha in Amman, Jordan, Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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