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Hamas sticking to ceasefire conditions including Israeli Gaza pullout

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

CAIRO (Reuters) -Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said on Wednesday that his Palestinian Islamist movement at war with Israel was sticking to its conditions for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, including an Israeli military withdrawal.

Israeli officials visited Egypt earlier this week in a renewed effort to secure a deal, but a Palestinian official close to mediation efforts said there had been no sign of a breakthrough.

"We are committed to our demands: the permanent ceasefire, comprehensive and complete withdrawal of the enemy out of the Gaza Strip, the return of all displaced people to their homes, allowing all aid needed for our people in Gaza, rebuilding the Strip, lifting the blockade and achieving an honourable prisoner exchange deal," Haniyeh said in a televised speech marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day.

The exchange he referred to would be a release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in return for Israeli hostages being held by militants in Gaza since a deadly Oct. 7 Hamas-led assault on Israel.

Israel had said it was interested only in a temporary truce to free hostages. Hamas has said it will let them go only as part of a deal to permanently end the war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israeli troops plan to thrust into Rafah at the southern end of Gaza, where 1.5 million people have been sheltering.

In Doha, Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said on Wednesday that negotiations on a Gaza ceasefire are deadlocked mainly over the return of displaced people to different parts of the Palestinian territory.

A source with knowledge of the talks said the Qatari leader was referring to a Hamas demand that displaced Palestinians be free to return to their homes in northern Gaza which Israel ordered evacuated early in the nearly six-month-old war.

“Hamas wants the public to be able to return to the north. This is huge for Hamas and the Israelis are giving them a hard time on that. The Israelis don’t want them (displaced Palestinians) to have freedom of movement,” said the source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Another sticking point, the source said, is whether Palestinian prisoners with life sentences would be part of the release. Hamas wants hundreds of long-serving detainees freed.

Speaking in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, where Israel carried out one of the heaviest bombardments in many weeks, the Israeli military Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Herzi Halevi said the forces would "press harder, as much as necessary" in Gaza in order to affect hostage release talks.

"We are pressing to try to initiate movement in the negotiations, to bring about an agreement for the release of the hostages. This is a top priority," Halevi added.

Of 253 people seized by Hamas during the Oct. 7 rampage that triggered the Gaza war, 134 remain in captivity and incommunicado in the Palestinian enclave.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jana Choukeir; Additional reporting by Andrew Mills; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Howard Goller)