Gaza cease-fire talks falter in Doha as Blinken arrives in region

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DOHA, Qatar — Starkly different visions of how to end the war in Gaza are at the center of thorny and slow-moving negotiations between Israel and Hamas in Doha this week, with officials warning that a deal to halt the fighting and release some hostages could be weeks away, or upended entirely if Israel moves ahead with a planned assault on the southern city of Rafah.

For months, Hamas has insisted on a negotiated end to the conflict, including a permanent cease-fire in exchange for the release of the hostages its fighters abducted from Israel on Oct. 7. Israel has vowed to continue the war until the group, which has controlled Gaza for 16 years, is eliminated. Any suspension of hostilities would be temporary, Israel says.

“This is not a negotiation that will end in days — it will end, maybe, in weeks,” said an Israeli official briefed on the talks who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations.

Senior Hamas officials said Wednesday that Israel provided a “generally negative response” to their latest proposal. Speaking at a news conference in Beirut, Hamas official Osama Hamdan accused Israel of procrastinating “to hamper negotiations and, perhaps, lead them to a dead end.”

The cease-fire negotiations come at a critical time for Gaza, where experts say a famine may already be unfolding in the north, and more than 1 million people displaced to Rafah await an Israeli assault.

“As we are preparing to enter Rafah, and this will take a little time; we are continuing to operate with full force,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a recorded video statement Wednesday.

Israel is under enormous pressure from the United States to abandon plans for a ground invasion of Rafah, where Israeli leaders say an operation is needed to destroy Hamas’s few remaining battalions. Netanyahu is sending a delegation to Washington for talks on how to battle Hamas without endangering civilians. At least 31,923 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is also traveling to Israel on Friday, a State Department spokesman said, after stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “Blinken will discuss with the leadership of the Government of Israel the ongoing negotiations to secure the release of all hostages,” spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

Hamas officials on Wednesday said Israel’s latest response failed to mention a comprehensive cease-fire, and lacked assurances that displaced Palestinians could return to their homes once the fighting stops.

Two of Hamas’s key demands include allowing residents to return to northern Gaza, which Israel has cut off from the rest of the territory, and linking any pause in fighting to a lasting cease-fire and end to the war.

Israel has said allowing residents to return to the north is a redline because it believes Hamas is trying to regroup in areas already cleared by the Israeli military. It also wants to continue the war, including by attacking Rafah, and says the conflict will end when Hamas is defeated in Gaza.

“We cannot stop the war. We cannot retreat from Gaza. We will not allow all the civilians to go back to the north,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser.

Hamas official Basem Naim, in an interview in Doha, said the group has demonstrated greater “flexibility” in negotiations in recent weeks, agreeing to discuss a phased deal that would start with a pause in fighting. But any agreement must include a pathway to a “sustainable cease-fire,” he said.

The talks around the first phase were centered on Hamas freeing 35 civilian hostages held in Gaza, in exchange for a six-week pause in fighting and the release of about 350 Palestinians from prisons in Israel, according to a Western diplomat with knowledge of the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations.

Israel wants the first batch of hostages to include five female soldiers, whom Hamas considers to be of higher value, the Israeli official said. There are 130 hostages still held in Gaza, including 33 Israel has officially said are dead.

“If we hand these war prisoners over to the Israelis without being sure that this will lead to a lasting cease-fire, it means that we are giving them the most precious card in our hand for nothing,” Naim said, referring to the hostages.

Hamas, according to the Israeli official, has so far refused to provide Israel with a list of hostages who are still alive.

“I haven’t heard optimism in the room,” the official said of the negotiations. “What I’ve heard is that there is work to be done.”

But even if Hamas offers significant concessions, some observers say it’s unclear whether there is enough political will in Israel for a deal.

“There is reason for a little bit of optimism because the Hamas answers indicated some flexibility,” said Gershon Baskin, who helped negotiate the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in 2011.

“But it’s not clear to me whether or not Netanyahu wants an agreement,” he said. “And that is evident by the fact that the negotiations are not being conducted by the highest level of negotiators.”

David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, departed Doha on Tuesday, Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari said, leaving a team in place to continue discussions.

Netanyahu appears more focused on a military victory, Baskin said, and hunting top Hamas figures such as Yehiya Sinwar, the group’s leader in Gaza, and Mohammed Deif, the head of its militant wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades.

Israel assumes “that if we kill Deif and Sinwar, the chain of command will break down,” he said. “Why assume that the hostages will not be executed?”

The Israeli military continues to operate across Gaza, including in Gaza City, where it has carried out a days-long raid on al-Shifa Hospital.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which accuses Hamas of using hospitals as staging grounds for military activities, said Wednesday that it had killed approximately 90 “terrorists” in the area of the hospital and questioned over 300 people, during military operations it claimed had spared “harm to civilians, patients, medical teams, and medical equipment.”

Hamas, in a statement, said dozens of civilians had been executed by Israeli forces. Neither statement could be independently corroborated.

Mahmoud Bassal, a spokesman for Gaza’s Civil Defense said in a statement that “hundreds of wounded citizens” remained in the vicinity of the hospital.

Israel said Monday that the raid on al-Shifa had killed Faiq Mabhouh, whom the IDF identified as a senior official with Hamas’s internal security division and the coordinator of the group’s militant activities across Gaza.

The Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV network said Mabhouh was the director of police operations, who coordinated and protected aid deliveries. The Washington Post could not immediately confirm his role.

Police officers, who were civil servants under Hamas’s prewar government, played a key role guarding international aid convoys until last month, when Israel began targeting them.

On Wednesday, Israel announced it had killed four other Hamas officials, calling them “senior operatives” while also saying that they managed the organization’s activities in “humanitarian zones.”

Morris reported from Berlin, Fahim from Istanbul and Dadouch from Beirut. Karen DeYoung in Washington and Michael Birnbaum in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.

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