Israel Softens Stance on Some Issues in Cease-Fire Talks, Officials Say: Live Updates

After a monthslong standoff, Israel is softening some of its demands in negotiations over a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and the release of hostages held there.

As part of its latest proposal, Israel would allow displaced Palestinian civilians to return to northern Gaza, according to two Israeli officials, marking a sharp reversal on an issue that has been a sticking point in the talks.

For weeks, Israel has demanded that it be allowed to impose significant restrictions on Palestinians going back to the north, worrying Hamas could take advantage of a large-scale return to strengthen itself. Now, Israel has consented to Palestinian civilians going back en masse during the first phase of an agreement, according to the officials, whose account was confirmed by a non-Israeli official familiar with the talks.

One of the Israeli officials said those returning to the north would be subject to no inspections or limitations, while the second said there would be nearly no restrictions, without elaborating. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to share details of the proposal.

It was not clear whether Hamas would accept the most recent Israeli proposal, which is part of negotiations that the two sides are conducting indirectly through mediators from Egypt and Qatar. As of Wednesday afternoon, the group hadn’t officially issued a response.

The cease-fire talks were a focus of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken as he visited Israel on Wednesday. “There is a proposal on the table, and as we’ve said, no delays, no excuses,” Mr. Blinken said before meeting with President Isaac Herzog. He later discussed the talks and other issues in a nearly three-hour meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hamas has long demanded that any deal include a permanent end to the war, which has forced most of Gaza’s more than two million people to flee their homes. The Israeli offer, according to one of the Israeli officials, doesn’t include language that refers explicitly to an end to the fighting.

Hanging over the negotiations is Israel’s threat to invade Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza where roughly a million civilians are sheltering, along with what Israel says are thousands of Hamas fighters. But even as it vows to carry out its plan for a ground invasion there, in defiance of pleas from world leaders and humanitarian groups, it is showing some willingness to make concessions in talks to stop the fighting and free hostages.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that, as part of its proposal, Israel had reduced the number of hostages Hamas would need to release in the initial phase of a deal. For months, it had been insisting on the release of 40 hostages, but in the new offer, the Israeli government said it would agree to 33.

That change was prompted in part by the fact that Israel now believes that some of the 40 have died in captivity, one of the officials said.

As details of Israel’s latest offer have emerged, Mr. Netanyahu has come under increasing pressure from his right-wing coalition partners to reject compromise. If they withdraw from the government over a deal, Israel could head to early elections, threatening Mr. Netanyahu’s political future.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a hard-line member of the coalition, has said that if Mr. Netanyahu gives up on invading Rafah immediately, a government under his leadership doesn’t have “the right to exist.”

On Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu said an invasion of Rafah would take place, without saying when.

“The idea that we will halt the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” he said in a meeting with the families of hostages, according to a statement from his office. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there — with or without a deal — in order to achieve the total victory.”

If Israel and Hamas strike an agreement, it would be the first cease-fire since late November, when a short-lived pause in the fighting allowed for the release of more than 100 hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas and its allies captured roughly 240 Israelis and foreigners in their attack on Oct. 7, which prompted Israel to go to war in Gaza. More than 130 hostages are believed to still be held in Gaza, but some are thought to have died.

Aaron Boxerman contributed reporting.

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