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Hamas’s Cease-Fire Proposal Includes a Familiar Sticking Point

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Hamas has softened its position in its latest Gaza cease-fire proposal but is sticking to a key demand that has been a major hurdle to a deal, according to two senior officials from countries involved in the negotiations.

That has dampened prospects for an imminent agreement, even as U.S. and Israeli officials have expressed optimism now that the talks are moving forward after weeks of deadlock.

Hamas presented a counterproposal on Wednesday. The two officials said that Hamas wanted international assurances that, once an initial truce kicks in, both sides will keep negotiating until they reach a final deal to end the war and free all of the hostages remaining in Gaza.

In effect, Hamas wants to ensure that it does not turn over many of the hostages only for Israel to restart the war, one of the officials said. Both senior officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Israeli negotiators immediately rejected that demand, the two officials said. Israel wants the option to resume fighting if it deems it necessary. Without such leverage, Hamas might drag its feet, effectively obtaining an undeclared permanent cease-fire, one of the officials argued.

At the heart of the dispute is the question of the future of Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has vowed to destroy Hamas and topple its rule in the Palestinian enclave. Hamas hopes that a permanent cease-fire will allow it to cling to power.

Israel’s military leaders now increasingly say that a deal to bring home the remaining 120 hostages is the right way forward, even at the cost of leaving Hamas in power for the time being.

The talks are based on a three-stage framework first publicized by President Biden in late May and later endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.

Both sides agree on the broad outlines of a deal that would include a six-week cease-fire and the release of most of the civilian hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

During the pause, Israel and Hamas would negotiate the next step: an end to the war and the release of the remaining living hostages, most of them soldiers.

The debate now is over what comes next.

Even if Israeli negotiators could reach a deal that would end the war in Gaza, it is unclear whether Mr. Netanyahu’s government would back it. Two senior members of his coalition have ruled out a full cease-fire and Mr. Netanyahu himself has publicly zigzagged on whether he endorses the framework.

About 120 hostages remain in Gaza out of roughly 250 people abducted in the Hamas-led attack, according to Israel. Roughly one-third of them are presumed dead by the Israeli authorities.

During a weeklong truce in November, 105 were freed in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners, but Hamas has refused to release any more hostages without a path to a permanent cease-fire.

On Friday, an Israeli delegation led by David Barnea, the head of the Mossad intelligence agency, arrived in Qatar for the first time in weeks to hold further talks. Mr. Barnea met with the Qatari prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, who has served as one of the main mediators.

But, in an unusual arrangement, Mr. Barnea did not arrive with other senior Israeli security chiefs working to hammer out the deal. He was accompanied by Ophir Falk, a close aide to Mr. Netanyahu, the two senior officials said.

The Israeli military and Shin Bet intelligence service, both of which participate in the negotiations, declined to comment.

Hamas did made one key concession in its counterproposal, softening its stance on the terms of negotiations for the second phase of the cease-fire. The group had wanted to keep those talks focused solely on which Palestinian prisoners would be released in exchange for hostages.

The concession followed weeks of pressure on Hamas by Qatar, which hosts much of the armed group’s political leadership in Doha, the officials said.

But at the same time, Hamas demanded assurances from mediating countries, including the United States, that the talks during the truce would continue until a permanent cease-fire was negotiated and all living hostages were released, the two officials said.

Israeli negotiators had already agreed that the six-week truce could be extended as long as the talks were progressing. Hamas’s new phrasing could be read as allowing those negotiations — and the initial truce — to continue indefinitely, one of the senior officials said.

During the meetings in Qatar, Mr. Barnea argued that Hamas’s demand would be a fundamental break from the proposal adopted by the U.N. Security Council and by Mr. Biden, the senior official said.

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