Hamas Drops Cease-Fire Objections as Talks Set to Continue

(Bloomberg) -- Hamas has dropped its objections over a US-backed cease-fire proposal to halt the Gaza conflict with Israel, a person familiar with the matter said, the clearest sign yet that a truce is possible after months of fruitless negotiations.

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The person, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said that Israel had come back with fresh changes in the latest round of indirect talks, suggesting that tough negotiations still remain. Discussions will continue next week, Israel said.

“It should be emphasized that there are still gaps between the sides,” the office of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.

Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US and the UK, has agreed to move beyond earlier sticking points, the person said, without providing details. The Jerusalem Post reported earlier Friday that Hamas appeared to have dropped a demand that Israel agree to a permanent cease-fire at the start of the proposed deal, while Israel’s Channel 13 said the new offer doesn’t insist on a full withdrawal of Israeli troops in the initial stage.

Either way, the apparent shift from Hamas offered the best hope in weeks that the two sides could at least temporarily halt fighting that was touched off with the group’s attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7. Israel’s retaliatory military campaign has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health authority in Gaza, and threatened a wider regional war.

President Joe Biden put forward the proposal in late May, describing a three-phase approach that would lead to a permanent end to the conflict. He said it had Israel’s full support — something that Israeli officials backed away from at the time.

“We’re hopeful about the direction things are moving in, but there’s still going to be a lot more work to do,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Friday. “We have also been exerting every pressure to Hamas to bring this deal to a close through our work with partners in the region.”

All along, the problem has been a fundamental difference between the two sides. Hamas has insisted on a permanent cease-fire and says Israel must withdraw its forces completely from Gaza. Israel, meanwhile, has said it will pause fighting but not end it as long as Hamas’s governing and military structures remain intact.

An Israeli delegation led by Mossad chief David Barnea was in Qatar earlier Friday for the talks, and returned home late in the day. Barnea, who leads the Israeli external-intelligence agency, met Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

US officials have said a cease-fire could turn into a permanent halt in fighting. The war has caused turmoil in the wider Middle East and huge political divisions globally, even hurting Biden’s bid for reelection in November.

US officials have also worked to head off a potential conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, while also seeking to neutralize Houthi forces in Yemen that say they will keep targeting commercial shipping as long as the Gaza conflict continues.

--With assistance from Galit Altstein and Akayla Gardner.

(Updates with details of Hamas response, additional details throughout.)

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