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US sees signs of progress on deal to release hostages, bring temporary pause to Israel-Hamas war

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WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. negotiators are making progress on a potential agreement under which Israel would pause military operations against Hamas in Gaza for two months in exchange for the release of more than 100 hostages who were captured in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, according to two senior administration officials.

The officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations, said Saturday that emerging terms of the yet-to-be sealed deal would play out over two phases.

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In the first phase, fighting would stop to allow for the remaining women, elderly and wounded hostages to be released by Hamas.

Israel and Hamas would then aim to work out details during the first 30 days of the pause for a second phase in which Israeli soldiers and civilian men would be released. The emerging deal also calls for Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

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While the proposed deal would not end the war, U.S. officials are hopeful that such an agreement could lay the groundwork for a durable resolution to the conflict.

The New York Times first reported on Saturday that progress has been made towards an agreement for a pause in fighting in exchange for the remaining hostages.

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CIA director Bill Burns is expected to discuss the contours of the emerging agreement when he meets on Sunday in France with David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel for talks centered on the hostage negotiations, according to three people familiar with the scheduled meeting who were not authorized to comment publicly.

President Joe Biden on Friday spoke by phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Calls with both leaders focused on the hostage situation.

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“Both leaders affirmed that a hostage deal is central to establishing a prolonged humanitarian pause in the fighting and ensure additional life-saving humanitarian assistance reaches civilians in need throughout Gaza,” the White House said in a statement about Biden’s call with the Qatari leader. “They underscored the urgency of the situation, and welcomed the close cooperation among their teams to advance recent discussions.”

Burns heads to France for the high-level talks after White House senior adviser Brett McGurk traveled to the Mideast this week for talks on the hostage situation.

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If Burns sees progress in his talks in France, Biden may dispatch McGurk back to the Mideast quickly to try to complete an agreement. McGurk during his talks this week was also laying the groundwork for another trip to the region by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who next week could make his fifth trip to the Middle East since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

The White House and CIA have yet to publicly confirm Burns’ meeting in France and administration officials have been guarded that a deal can quickly be brokered.

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“We should not expect any imminent developments,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday.

Biden and his aides are keenly aware that the mounting Palestinian death toll, and widespread suffering in Gaza, is frustrating some in his Democratic base, who want to see him put more pressure on Israel to end the war. Democrats in Michigan have warned the White House that Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict could cost him enough support within the state’s sizable Arab American community to sway the outcome of the 2024 election in a state that could be key to whether he wins a second term.

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Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to continue the offensive until complete victory over Hamas is achieved.

Netanyahu has faced increasing pressure from the families of many hostages who are demanding a deal to win their loved ones’ release.

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The Oct. 7 attack killed some 1,200 people in Israel, and Hamas and other militants abducted around 250 people.

Around 100 hostages were freed under a weeklong cease-fire deal in November in exchange for the release of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Around 130 remain captive, but a number have since been confirmed dead.

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Hamas has previously said it will free more captives only in exchange for an end to the war and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

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