Israel-Hamas Truce Talks Advance as Hezbollah Fires Rockets

(Bloomberg) -- Hamas has broadly agreed to a US-proposed cease-fire plan with Israel, according to a senior American official, though the details still have to be resolved.

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Israel is sending negotiators to Qatar to try to finalize an agreement, with US officials also set to take part. It’s the clearest sign in weeks that a pause in hostilities could be on the cards after nearly nine months of war in Gaza.

The progress came as Israel weathered an intense rocket attack from Hezbollah militants across the Lebanese border, raising fears about a full-blown regional conflict that could draw in the US and Iran.

Israel received a response from Hamas via Qatar’s government, a key intermediary between the warring sides. The US official said the move was encouraging and it may lead to the release of sick, wounded, female and older male hostages taken from Israel to Gaza during the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke for 30 minutes on Thursday to discuss Hamas’ proposal.

A Hamas official, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said the group is sticking to longstanding demands, including the retreat of Israeli forces and the return of displaced civilians to their homes in Gaza. However, the new offer doesn’t insist on a full withdrawal of Israeli troops in the initial stage, Israel’s Channel 13 said.

Biden released a three-part peace plan at the end of May that neither side has so far seemed willing to adopt in full, partly because Hamas insisted on the permanent departure of Israeli soldiers from Gaza.

Israel has resisted that, saying the military won’t end its campaign until Hamas is eradicated as a military and governing organization. Netanyahu has committed to the idea of a temporary cease-fire — perhaps lasting several weeks — as a way to release hostages seized on Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters attacked the country’s south and triggered the conflict.

Hezbollah Attacks

Also on Thursday, Hezbollah militants stepped up their aerial assaults into northern Israel, saying they fired more than 200 missiles and drones at several army positions. The group said it was responding to Israel’s assassination of a senior commander called Mohammed Naameh Nasser on Wednesday.

Israel intercepted many of the projectiles, but some landed in built-up areas, albeit without causing substantial damage. Sirens went off as far south as Acre, which is rare, and shrapnel from an intercepted missile hit a mall in the city.

The Israel Defense Forces said it responded by sending jets and firing artillery to hit Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon.

The escalating skirmishes have led to increased talk of a full-on war, which would likely be devastating for Lebanon and lead to heavy casualties in Israel. Hezbollah is the most powerful of Tehran’s allied proxy groups, with far more fighters and missiles than Hamas.

The two sides have been trading fire since the start of the war in Gaza, when Hezbollah launched rockets in solidarity with Hamas. The Lebanon-based group, which like Hamas is designated a terrorist organization by the US, has said it won’t stop until Israel ceases its campaign in Gaza.

The worsening tensions have weighed on Israeli bonds and helped push up oil prices in the past month.

Hamas killed 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7 and took about 250 hostage. Around 120 remain in captivity, although at least 40 are believed to be dead.

Israel’s retaliatory military campaign has killed more than 37,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health authority in Gaza, which doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants. The Israeli military has destroyed large swathes of the enclave and provoked a humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.

The US, Qatar and Egypt have worked to broker a hostage deal and cease-fire for months. Fighting has continued unabated since a week-long pause — the only one so far — that ended at the beginning of December.

--With assistance from Dana Khraiche.

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