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Hamas has agreed in principle to a truce with Israel, provided that indirect negotiations on a permanent ceasefire get under way as soon as the guns fall silent, sources who saw the group's response told The National on Wednesday.
Hamas is demanding a gradual Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, starting with the redeployment of troops outside urban areas, according to the sources, who confirmed that the group's response was sent to mediators on Tuesday night.
The sources also told The National that the group wants the reconstruction of Gaza completed within a timeline of up to three years, beginning with the repair of hospitals damaged in the fighting.
It also wants sufficient aid supplies to enter the besieged enclave to alleviate the suffering of its 2.3 million residents. Hamas said failure to fully implement any part of the deal would freeze the entire process.
Al Akhbar, a daily newspaper in Lebanon known to be close to Hezbollah, the largest of Iran's proxies in the region, had earlier published a version of Hamas's response.
The sources confirmed that the version published by Al Akhbar was identical to what the mediators received from Hamas.
Al Akhbar said Hamas's counter proposals envisage a three-stage truce of 45 days each during which indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel get under way to reach permanent quiet, the group's term for a ceasefire.
Channel 13 cited a senior Israeli official saying that some of the demands presented by Hamas were not acceptable, without providing details.
Israel has repeatedly said it will not accept any deal simply to secure the release of the hostages. Sticking to its declared aim of eradicating Hamas, it has said previously that it has no intention of completely withdrawing from Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the war will continue until “total victory” over Hamas and the return of all the remaining hostages.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Israeli leaders on Wednesday, a day after Hamas sent mediators its response to proposals for a ceasefire in Gaza and a prisoner and hostage swap with Israel.
Mr Blinken, speaking in Israel on Wednesday, said more work was needed on the truce and hostage deal but voiced hope for success.
He also pleaded for more aid to war-battered Gaza.
"There are so many innocent men, women and children who are suffering as a result of the attacks perpetrated by Hamas and are now being caught in the crossfire of Hamas's making," Mr Blinken said.
"We all have an obligation to do everything possible to get the necessary assistance to those who so desperately need it, and the steps that are being taken −additional steps that need to be taken – are the focus of my own meetings here."
Mr Blinken met Mr Netanyahu on Wednesday after talks in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar on Monday and Tuesday.
"We're looking at it intensely, as is, I know, the government of Israel," he said as he met Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
"There's a lot of work to be done, but we are very much focused on doing that work, and hopefully being able to resume the release of hostages that was interrupted."
The proposals to which Hamas responded were hammered out by mediators from the United States, Egypt and Qatar in Paris last week. They provide for a truce lasting up to three months and the phased release of the hostages in return for freeing thousands of Palestinians in Israeli jails.
Mr Blinken, on his fifth visit to the region since the war broke out, is trying to advance the truce talks while pushing for a larger postwar settlement in which Saudi Arabia would normalise relations with Israel in return for a “clear, credible, time-bound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state”.
Mr Netanyahu is opposed to Palestinian statehood, and his hawkish governing coalition could collapse if he is seen as making too many concessions.
Mr Blinken acknowledged that “there's still a lot of work to be done”. But he said he still believed an agreement on the hostages was possible.
At a news conference in Qatar on Tuesday, he said a pathway to more lasting peace was “coming ever more sharply into focus” but would require “hard decisions” by the region's leaders.
The war in Gaza, which entered its fifth month on Wednesday, was sparked by a surprise attack on southern Israel by Hamas, whose fighters killed nearly 1,200 people and took back to Gaza about 240 hostages.
Israel's response was a devastating military campaign in Gaza that has to date killed more than 27,700 Palestinians and displaced the vast majority of its population. It has also razed large portions of built-up areas in the densely populated enclave.
A week-long truce in late November secured the release of more than 100 hostages and about 240 Palestinians from Israeli prisons. Hamas is now believed to be holding 132 hostages, although about 30 of them are believed to have died since October 7.
On hostages, according to the text published by Al Akhbar, Hamas says the first stage will involve the release of women, children and the elderly while the amount of aid reaching Gaza is significantly increased, hospitals are repaired and temporary accommodation, such as tents and shipping containers, are provided for the displaced.
It also wants Israeli forces to move out of urban areas, and for the displaced to be allowed to return to their homes and all Israeli aerial activity to be suspended.
The second phase, according to the text, will involve the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the release of all males, including soldiers, held by Hamas. The second phase does not start before a permanent ceasefire is announced, it says.
The third phase provides for handing Israel the remains of hostages who died on October 7 or while in Hamas's custody, while humanitarian and reconstruction efforts are continuing.
In an addendum, Hamas says it wants all Palestinian women, children, the ailing and those over 50 years of age released from Israeli prisons.
It is also demanding another 1,500 Palestinian prisoners be released, including 500 the group names, who are serving life or long prison sentences for security-related cases.
It also says that Israel must commit to supplying Gaza with water and electricity and that all humanitarian services offered to Gaza's residents by the UN and other agencies should resume on the scale that existed before the war.