By Mohammed Salem and Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA/DOHA (Reuters) – Israeli forces pounded areas in northern and southern Gaza on Wednesday after the Palestinian militant group Hamas said it had received and was studying a new proposal for a ceasefire and release of hostages in Gaza.
The proposal, presented by mediators after talks with Israel, appeared to be the most serious peace initiative for months in the Israel-Hamas war.
A senior Hamas official told Reuters it involved a three-stage truce, during which the group would first release the remaining civilians among hostages it captured on Oct. 7, then soldiers, and finally the bodies of hostages that were killed.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not indicate how long the stages would last or what was envisioned to follow the final stage.
But it was the first time since the collapse of the only brief truce of the war so far, in late November, that details had been released of a new proposal being considered by both sides.
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which has been devastated by almost four months of bombardment by Israeli forces, said any ceasefire agreement must end the war and allow them back into homes they abandoned as Israeli forces advanced.
“Any ceasefire that doesn’t end the war and return us to our homes in Gaza City and the north is not worth it,” said Ahmed, a father of six who fled his home in Gaza City in the north of the enclave for the city of Rafah in the south.
“We are exhausted. We were happy to learn about the news of a possible agreement. We hope they don’t disappoint us by signing any agreement that won’t return us to our homes and end the war,” he told Reuters by telephone.
According to Gaza’s health authorities more than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli bombardments in the war, triggered after Hamas fighters stormed into Israeli towns on Oct. 7 killing 1,200 and taking 253 hostages.
Israel’s bombardment continued on Wednesday in parts of the city of Khan Younis in the south and in districts of Gaza City, witnesses said. Israeli planes also bombed areas in the Al-Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, residents said.
In Khan Younis, residents reported heavy fighting around the Al-Nimsawi residential area. In the centre of the city, Israeli forces blew up a cluster of houses in a residential area, residents said.
Tanks continued to bomb areas around Nasser Hospital, the largest hospital still functioning in southern Gaza, and Hamas media said 17 Palestinians had been killed in Khan Younis since late Tuesday.
Israel’s military said its forces had killed at least 25 Palestinian militants in Gaza in the past 24 hours, and that three Israeli soldiers had been killed in battles in the northern and southern parts of the enclave.
That took the number of Israeli soldiers killed since the start of the ground offensive in Gaza to 224.
NETANYAHU SEEKS ‘TOTAL VICTORY’
The ceasefire proposal followed talks in Paris involving intelligence chiefs from Israel, the United States and Egypt, with the prime minister of Qatar.
In a mark of the seriousness of the negotiations, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said he was going to Cairo to discuss it, his first public trip there for more than a month.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his vow not to pull troops out of Gaza until “total victory”, a reminder of the huge gap in the public stances of the warring sides over what it would take to halt combat even temporarily.
Israel says it will not stop fighting until the militant group which has ruled Gaza since 2007 is eradicated.
Hamas says it will release its remaining captives only as part of a wider deal to end the war permanently.
Netanyahu is under pressure from ally Washington to chart a path towards ending the war, and domestically from relatives of hostages who worry that negotiations are the only way to bring them home.
But far-right parties in his ruling coalition say they will quit rather than endorse a deal to free hostages that left Hamas intact.
(Reporting in Nidal al-Mughrabi in Doha and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Sharon Singleton)
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