A deal to halt the fighting in Gaza in return for the release of up to 50 hostages is expected in the coming days, Israel said on Sunday night.
It came as US officials said negotiations had entered a “sensitive” phase after the prime minister of Qatar, where talks are being hosted, said only “minor details” remained to be resolved.
Under a US-brokered deal between Israel and Hamas “dozens of women and children” would be released “in exchange for a five-day pause in fighting”, draft agreement documents are reported to say.
The possible breakthrough comes as the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) signed off plans on Sunday to extend the offensive within Gaza, ahead of a widely anticipated push south.
The southern advance is seen as a pivotal moment not just for civilians trapped in the territory, but also Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to maintain diplomatic support in the face of growing calls for a ceasefire and more aid.
Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the US, told American media on Sunday: “I’m hopeful we can have a deal in the coming days.”
Amid growing optimism, a senior White House official said he believed the “vast majority” of the abductees were “most likely” alive and that “significant progress” in negotiations had been achieved.
Jonathan Finer, the White House’s deputy national security adviser, also said negotiations had reached a “sensitive stage”, adding: “We’re following this minute by minute, hour by hour, and have been over a number of weeks.”
He added: “Some of the issues, whether it was disagreements, have now been either narrowed or an understanding has been reached, but it is not complete, it is not everything.”
When asked if the number of hostages included in a potential deal amounted to “12, more than two dozen, dozens”, he replied: “We’re talking about considerably more than 12.”
He said that a temporary ceasefire would allow more humanitarian assistance to reach Gaza.
Mr Herzog told ABC’s This Week that Israel ruled out a full ceasefire but suggested there could be a pause in the fighting “so we can get the hostages out”.
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, a Qatari diplomat, told a press conference on Sunday that the main challenges were “practical and logistical” but he was confident “we are close enough to reach a deal”.
“The challenges that remain in the negotiations are very minor compared to the bigger challenges,” he said.
However, Mr Netanyahu urged caution, stressing early in the day that a deal had not been struck.
The flurry of negotiations came amid further violence in the Middle East, after Yemeni Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran, seized what they described as an Israeli ship in the Red Sea.
Israel denied that the ship was theirs or contained Israeli crew and described the incident as an “Iranian act of terrorism”.
Meanwhile, fierce fighting continued on the ground in Gaza, four days after Israel took control of the Al-Shifa hospital, where it had claimed Hamas had built an underground base.
On Sunday night the Israeli military released CCTV footage which they claimed showed Hamas bringing hostages to the hospital on Oct 7 and parking vehicles used in the terror attack there.
The IDF said a captive soldier had been executed and two foreign hostages were held at the site.
“These findings prove that the Hamas terrorist organisation used the Shifa hospital complex on the day of the massacre as terrorist infrastructure”, an IDF statement said.
It had earlier reported the discovery of 50-metre-long tunnels at the complex.
Earlier in the day at least 30 premature babies were evacuated from the Al-Shifa hospital by the World Health Organisation, which described the hospital as a “death zone” ahead of a transfer to specialist care in Egypt.
On Sunday, IDF operations appeared to largely focus on efforts to expose the Hamas terror network in and around Gaza City, to the north of the strip.
However, the military was heavily criticised by António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, following reported attacks on two UN schools housing civilians in less than 24 hours.
Humanitarian organisations have spoken of their alarm at the prospect of an IDF push south, given that for weeks Israel has been ordering Gazan civilians to evacuate there to avoid the fighting.
Approximately 240 hostages were abducted into the Gaza strip by Hamas during its massacre of October 7, which killed more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians.
Mr Netanyahu, whose personal popularity has been dramatically damaged by the massacre, is under significant political pressure to prioritise returning the hostages over defeating Hamas.