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Israel Says Large Gaps Remain With Hamas Over Gaza Cease-Fire

(Bloomberg) -- Cease-fire negotiations between Israel and Hamas are stalling again, Israeli officials say, with large gaps between the sides over hostages, prisoners and the future of Gaza.

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A delegation of Israeli negotiators returned late Tuesday from two days of talks in Cairo and reported that Hamas is insisting on an immediate end to the war and a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks.

The Iran-backed group also wants people in Gaza to be able to return to the north of the territory after the Israeli military urged them to move south at the start of the conflict, the officials said. Another sticking point, they said, is Hamas’s call for all Palestinians to be released from Israeli jails.

These reflect a hardening of Hamas’s stance compared with earlier talks, according to the Israeli officials, and are demands that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government won’t accept.

Israel has proposed a 42-day cease-fire during which several dozen hostages would be exchanged for several hundred prisoners. Many north Gazans could also return home after being screened by Israeli forces for arms and links to Hamas.

The officials said Hamas believes its position is stronger because of growing international pressure on Israel as the war rages. That was manifested by a US decision not to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution last month calling for an immediate cease-fire. President Joe Biden, who’s scheduled to speak to Netanyahu on Thursday by phone, also said he was “outraged” but an Israeli strike on Monday that killed seven aid workers in Gaza, including a US national.

Hamas is intent on remaining in power in Gaza even after fighting stops, the officials said, while Israel insists the war will continue until the group’s destroyed. Hamas swarmed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting around 250.

More than 32,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its air and ground assault, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.

The talks between Israel and Hamas are mediated by Qatar, the US and Egypt.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said on Wednesday that the negotiations were deadlocked over the return of displaced people to their homes in Gaza.

Israel was wary of Gazans returning to the north because of the risk of Hamas rocket fire returning from there into Israel. The officials, though, said Israel has shifted its stance and is offering to permit thousands, even tens of thousands, of civilians to return.

The officials said Israel still wants to move forces into the southern Gaza city of Rafah to destroy the four remaining Hamas battalions there. Israel estimates they have roughly 8,000 fighters between them.

The US and others have expressed alarm over the plan, saying there’s no way for the more than one million civilians in Rafah to be moved out quickly, and nowhere safe for them to go.

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