CAIRO — Hamas negotiators began intensified talks on Saturday on a possible Gaza truce that would see the return to Israel of some hostages, a Hamas official told Reuters, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director present in Cairo.

The Hamas delegation arrived from the Palestinian Islamist movement’s political office in Qatar, which, along with Egypt, has tried to mediate a follow-up to a brief November ceasefire amid international dismay over the soaring death toll in Gaza and the plight of its 2.3 million inhabitants.

Taher Al-Nono, a Hamas official and advisor to Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, said meetings with Egyptian and Qatari mediators had begun and Hamas was addressing their proposals “with full seriousness and responsibility.”

However, he reiterated a demand that any deal should include an Israeli pullout from Gaza and an end to the war, conditions that Israel has previously rejected.

“Any agreement to be reached must include our national demands; the complete and permanent ending of the aggression, the full and complete withdrawal of the occupation from Gaza Strip, the return of the displaced to their homes without restriction and a real prisoner swap deal, in addition to the reconstruction and ending the blockade,” Nono told Reuters.

An Israeli official signaled Israel’s core position was unchanged, saying it would “under no circumstances” agree to end the war in a deal to free hostages.

The war began after Hamas stunned Israel with a cross-border raid on Oct. 7 in which 1,200 people were killed and 252 hostages taken, according to Israeli tallies.

More than 34,600 Palestinians have been killed — 32 of them in the most recent 24-hour period — and more than 77,000 have been wounded in Israel’s assault, according to Gaza’s health ministry. The bombardment has devastated much of the enclave.

While the meetings in Cairo were under way, Israeli forces said they had killed Aiman Zaarab, who they said had been a leader of Islamic Jihad forces in southern Gaza and taken part in the Oct. 7 attack.

Before the talks began there had been some optimism.

“Things look better this time but whether an agreement is on hand would depend on whether Israel has offered what it takes for that to happen,” a Palestinian official with knowledge of the mediation efforts, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Washington — which, like other Western powers and Israel, brands Hamas a terrorist group — has urged it to enter a deal.

Progress has stumbled, however, over Hamas’ long-standing demand for a commitment to end the offensive. Israel insists that after any truce it would resume operations designed to disarm and dismantle the faction.

Hamas said on Friday it would come to Cairo in a “positive spirit” after studying the latest proposal, little of which has been made public.

Israel has given a preliminary nod to terms that one source said included the return of between 20 and 33 hostages in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and a truce of several weeks.

That would leave around 100 hostages in Gaza, some of whom Israel says have died in captivity. The source, who asked not to be identified by name or nationality, told Reuters their return may require an additional deal.

“That could entail a de facto, if not formal, end to the war – unless Israel somehow recovers them through force or generates enough military pressure to make Hamas relent,” the source said.

Egyptian sources said CIA Director William Burns arrived in Cairo on Friday. He has been involved in previous truce talks and Washington has signalled there may be progress this time.

The CIA declined to comment on Burns’ itinerary.

Cairo made a new push to revive talks late last month, alarmed by the prospect of an Israeli assault against Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians have taken shelter near the border with Egypt.

Such an Israeli operation could derail fragile humanitarian operations in Gaza and endanger many more lives, according to UN officials. Israel says it will not be deterred from taking Rafah eventually, and is working on a plan to evacuate civilians.

Saturday’s Cairo talks come as Qatar reviews its role as mediator, according to an official familiar with Doha’s thinking. Qatar may cease hosting the Hamas political office, said the official, who did not know if, in such a scenario, the Palestinian group’s delegates might also be asked to leave. — Reuters