Hamas May Have Softened Cease-fire Demands Due to Gaza Devastation, Officials Say

Multiple officials in the United States and Israel believe the widespread destruction in the Gaza Strip, a result of a nine-month Israeli offensive, has likely contributed to Hamas softening its demands for a cease-fire agreement.

Over the weekend, Hamas appeared to abandon its longstanding requirement for Israel to pledge an end to the war as a condition for any cease-fire deal. This sudden shift has rekindled hopes for progress in internationally mediated negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday asserted that military pressure, including Israel’s ongoing two-month offensive in Rafah, a southern city in Gaza, “is what has led Hamas to enter negotiations.”

Hamas, an Islamic militant group that aims to dismantle Israel and seized control of Gaza in 2007, maintains a high level of secrecy, leaving its internal dynamics largely unknown.

However, recent internal communications obtained by The Associated Press, signed by several high-ranking Hamas figures in Gaza, urged the group’s exiled political leadership to accept the cease-fire proposal put forth by U.S. President Joe Biden.

These messages, shared by a Middle East official familiar with the ongoing negotiations, detailed the significant losses Hamas has endured on the battlefield and the dire conditions within the war-torn territory. The official requested anonymity to disclose the contents of internal Hamas communications.

It remains unclear whether this internal pressure played a role in Hamas’s flexibility. Nonetheless, the messages suggest internal divisions within the group and a willingness among top militants to reach a deal promptly, even if Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s top official in Gaza, may not be in a hurry. Sinwar has been in hiding since the war broke out last October and is believed to be sheltering in a deep underground tunnel.

U.S. officials declined to provide comments on the communications.

But a person with knowledge of Western intelligence, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, said the group’s leadership understands its forces have sustained heavy casualties, which has contributed to Hamas moving closer to a cease-fire agreement.

Two U.S. officials stated that the Americans are aware of internal divisions within Hamas and that these divisions, the devastation in Gaza, or pressure from Egypt and Qatar, could have been factors in the militant group softening its demands for a deal. The U.S. officials requested anonymity to discuss the Biden administration’s perspective on the current situation.

The Middle Eastern official shared details from two internal Hamas communications, both penned by senior officials inside Gaza and addressed to the group’s exiled leadership in Qatar, where Hamas’s supreme leader, Ismail Haniyeh, is based.

The communication suggested that the war had taken its toll on Hamas fighters, with the senior figures urging the militant’s political wing abroad to accept the deal despite Sinwar’s reluctance.

Hamas spokesperson Jihad Taha dismissed any suggestions of divisions within the group.

“The movement’s position is unified and is crystallized through the organizational framework of the leadership,” he said.

The intelligence official showed the AP a transcript of the communications in Arabic but declined to share specific details about how the information was obtained or the raw form of the communications.

The official stated that the communications took place in May and June and originated from multiple senior officials within the group’s military wing in Gaza.

The messages acknowledged the deaths of Hamas fighters and the extent of devastation inflicted upon the Gaza Strip by the Israeli campaign in the enclave. They also suggest that Sinwar is either not fully aware of the toll of the fighting or not fully communicating it to those negotiating outside the territory.

It was not known whether Haniyeh or any other top officials in Qatar had responded.

Israeli officials declined to comment on the communications. Egypt and Qatar also had no immediate comment.

Egypt and Qatar have been collaborating with the United States to broker a cease-fire and end the devastating nine-month war. After months of fits and starts, talks resumed last week and are scheduled to continue in the coming days.

A deal is still not guaranteed. Netanyahu’s office announced over the weekend that “gaps still remain.” The U.S. officials said they are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for a cease-fire based on the latest developments but stressed that numerous efforts had looked promising only to fall through.

Still, the sides appear closer to a deal than they have been in months.

Israel launched the war in Gaza after Hamas’s October attack in which militants stormed into southern Israel, killed some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — and abducted about 250. Israel says Hamas is still holding about 120 hostages — about a third of them thought to be dead.

Since then, the Israeli air and ground offensive has killed more than 38,000 people in Gaza, according to the territory’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. The offensive has caused widespread devastation and a humanitarian crisis that has left hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of famine, according to international officials.

The war in Gaza has prompted international legal scrutiny of Israel’s conduct, including a case at the top on charges of genocide brought by South Africa and a request for arrest warrants against Netanyahu by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who also sought warrants for Hamas leaders.

Both Hamas and Egyptian officials confirmed Saturday that Hamas has dropped a key demand that Israel commit upfront to end the war. Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected this demand, leaving the talks stalled for months.

Instead, the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations, said the phased deal would start with a six-week cease-fire during which older, sick and female hostages would be released by Hamas in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Talks on a broader deal, including an end to the war, would only begin during this phase, they said.

Netanyahu has vowed to keep fighting until Israel destroys Hamas’ military and governing capabilities, even if hostages are freed.