Hamas is unlikely to reject a Gaza ceasefire proposal it received from mediators this week, but will not sign it without assurances that Israel has committed to ending the war, a Palestinian official close to the talks said.
Qatari and Egyptian mediators presented Hamas this week with the first concrete proposal for an extended halt to fighting in Gaza, agreed with Israel and the United States at talks in Paris last week.
Hamas has said it is studying the text and preparing a response.
The Palestinian official said the Paris text envisions a first phase lasting 40 days, during which fighting would cease while Hamas freed remaining civilians from among more than 100 hostages it is still holding.
Further phases would see the release of Israeli soldiers and the handover of bodies of dead hostages.
“I expect that Hamas will not reject the paper, but it might not give a decisive agreement either,” said the Palestinian official speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Instead, I expect them to send a positive response, and reaffirm their demands: for the agreement to be signed, it must ensure Israel will commit to ending the war in Gaza and pull out from the enclave completely.”
Such a long pause would be a first since 7 October, when Hamas fighters attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and capturing 253 hostages, precipitating an Israeli offensive that has laid waste to much of Gaza.
Health officials in the enclave said the confirmed death toll had risen above 27,000.
The only pause in the fighting so far, at the end of November, lasted only a week. International aid agencies have pleaded for an extended respite to alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza where nearly the entire 2.3 million-strong population has been made homeless.
The big gap between the two sides appears to be over what would follow any agreed truce. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to pull troops out until “total victory”, which he defines as eradicating Hamas.
Hamas says it will not sign up to any temporary truce unless Israel commits to a withdrawal and permanent end to the war.
In a sign of the seriousness of the proposal, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has said he will travel to Cairo to discuss it, although no firm date has been given for his trip.
The diplomatic progress has been accompanied by some of the most intense fighting of the war. Israel launched a huge ground assault last week to capture the main southern city Khan Younis, sheltering hundreds of thousands of civilians who fled previous fighting elsewhere.
Combat has also surged in the northern parts of Gaza which Israel claimed to have subdued weeks ago.
Residents said Israeli forces were pounding areas around hospitals in Khan Younis overnight, and stepped up their attacks close to Rafah, the small city on the enclave’s southern edge where more than half of Gaza’s population is now sheltering, mainly in makeshift tents and public buildings.
Osama Ahmed, 49, a father of five from Gaza City, now sheltering in western Khan Younis, said there had been fierce resistance in the city, and bombardment from air, ground and sea had been relentless as Israeli tanks push forwards.
“They haven’t entered deep into Al-Mawasi where we live but everyday they get closer,” he told Reuters by phone, referring to the western district of Khan Younis along the Mediterranean Coast.
“We hope a ceasefire deal will be announced before they raid our area,” he said. “All we want is a ceasefire now and to return to our homes, end the war and humiliation.”
The Israeli military said that it had killed “dozens of terrorists” in the past day in Khan Younis, where troops fought Hamas militants at close quarters and directed airstrikes. It also reported fighting in central and northern Gaza.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said in a statement that Israeli forces had stormed its Khan Younis headquarters at Al-Amal hospital for the third time in the past two days, and opened heavy fire nearby before they retreated.
Israel, which claims Hamas is using hospitals as command centres, has denied prior Red Crescent claims that it stormed the hospital. Hamas rejects Israel’s claims it uses hospitals as shields.
Palestinian health officials said medical teams had recovered 14 bodies of Palestinians who were killed near the centre of Khan Younis after some tanks retreated from there. It was unclear when those people were killed.
In the north, where some residents had returned after Israeli forces partially withdrew in January, army planes dropped leaflets on Gaza City repeating an order for residents in several large districts to flee and head south.
Outside of Gaza, the war has been accompanied by escalation in a number of flashpoints across the Middle East involving armed groups allied to Iran.
The Iran-aligned Houthi movement that controls most populated parts of Yemen has attacked shipping in the Red Sea, drawing retaliatory strikes from the United States and Britain.
Washington said it launched fresh strikes overnight, taking out ten drones in Western Yemen before they could take off.
A US Navy ship also shot down three Iranian drones and a Houthi anti-ship ballistic missile in the Gulf of Aden, the US military’s Central Command said in a statement.
There were no injuries or damage reported, it said.