Egyptian delegation in Israel for talks on Gaza hostages

Protest for the immediate release of Israeli hostages, in Tel Aviv

JERUSALEM/CAIRO (Reuters) -An Egyptian delegation met Israeli counterparts on Friday, looking for a way to restart talks to end the war in Gaza and return the remaining Israeli hostages, an official briefed on the meetings said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Israel had no new proposals to make, although it was willing to consider a limited truce in which 33 hostages would be released by the Islamist movement Hamas, instead of the 40 previously under discussion.

"There are no current hostage talks between Israel and Hamas, nor is there a new Israeli offer in that regard," the official said. "What there is, is an attempt by Egypt to restart the talks with an Egyptian proposal that would entail the release of 33 hostages - women, elderly and infirm."

According to Israeli media reports, Israeli intelligence officials believe there are 33 female, elderly and sick hostages left alive in Gaza, out of a total of 133 still being held by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups.

There was no decision on how long any truce would last but if such an exchange were agreed, the pause in fighting would be "definitely less than six weeks", the official said.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Friday he saw fresh momentum in talks to end the war in Gaza and return the remaining Israeli hostages.

"I believe that there is a renewed effort under way involving Qatar and Egypt as well as Israel to try to find a way forward," Sullivan told MSNBC in an interview. "Do I think that there is new momentum, new life in these hostage talks? I believe there is."

Citing two Israeli officials, Axios reported that Israeli officials told their Egyptian counterparts on Friday that Israel is ready to give hostage negotiations "one last chance" to reach a deal with Hamas before moving forward with an invasion of Rafah, the last refuge for around a million Palestinians who fled Israeli forces further north in Gaza earlier in the war.

The visit by the Egyptian delegation came a day after the United States and 17 other countries appealed to Hamas to release all of its hostages as a pathway to end the crisis in Gaza. Hamas vowed not to relent to international pressure.

Hamas said it was "open to any ideas or proposals that take into account the needs and rights of our people". However it stuck to central demands Israel has rejected, and said it criticised the statement for not calling for a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

Israel's far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich criticised the Egyptian proposal on X, calling it "a dangerous Israeli capitulation and a terrible victory for Hamas".

He accused government members to his left of pushing for "disastrous political arrangements that will result in the establishment of a terrorist Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and Gaza that will endanger Israel's existence," using the biblical Hebrew names for the occupied West Bank.

The visit by the Egyptian delegation followed Israeli media reports of a visit to Cairo on Thursday by the Israeli army chief, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, and Ronen Bar, the head of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence service.

Egypt, concerned about a potential influx of Palestinian refugees from neighbouring Gaza if the war continues with the long-promised Israeli offensive into the southern city of Rafah, has taken an increasingly active role in the negotiations.

"The Egyptians are really picking up the mantle on this. Egypt wants to see progress, not least because it's worried about a prospective Rafah operation," the official said.

Israel was increasingly looking past Qatar as a main broker, according to the official, after it failed to respond to Israeli demands to expel Hamas leaders from its territory or curb their finances.

"Qatar is still involved but in a lesser capacity," the official said. "It's clear to everyone they failed to deliver, even when it came to expelling Hamas or even shutting down their bank accounts."

However Hamas officials said they still considered Qatar a key mediator, alongside Egypt.

(Reporting by Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo, writing by James Mackenzie, editing by Mark Heinrich, Alex Richardson and Diane Craft)